Are the Scandinavian prisons really so bad?

“Why don’t you just give them the keys?,” asked James Conway, a former correctional officer in a maximum security US prison, when visiting Norway and learning about the extremely liberal regime in Scandinavian penal institutions and how it differs from the American system. Although the Scandinavian prison system has been critiqued, laughed at, and called ‘’bullshit’’ on a majority of Internet forums, the statistics speak for themselves. Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates worldwide with less than 20% released inmates rearrested within five years. In comparison, in the US, that number is 78,6 %, one of the highest worldwide, as reported by The New York Times.

For the past couple of years, media worldwide has been reporting on prisons in Scandinavia including facilities such as modern music studios, private cells with LCD TV’s and the absence of bars in the windows and plastic cutlery that is known as standard prison equipment. Critics say that Norway introduced a prison utopia and raising a question whether it is appropriate to provide criminal offenders with such luxurious treatment.

Conway said to The Guardian: “It’s you who put yourself in prison. Not the staff, not the judge, not society. You’ve only got yourself to blame so you deserve to be treated like a prisoner. Not like a rock star”.

The biggest wave of  international critique came after media around the world released pictures of the living conditions of Anders Behring Breivik, the far-right domestic terrorist who was responsible for killing 77 people, most of them minors, in the 2011 Oslo attacks. Breivik was given a private apartment consisting of three cells, could prepare his own food, spent his time playing chess with staff members or building a gingerbread house as a part of prison competition. While many find it outrageous that a mass killer lives in such conditions, His Oberg from the Halden prison in Norway says:

“Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: They have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us.”

Other factors that Scandinavian prisons are known for, which are still mostly absent in countries with high recidivism rates such as The US include: sufficient medical care,  suitable post-release assistance, and staff-inmate relationships based on mutual respect and trust. All of the above contribute to the higher chance of the inmates not going back to their old habits. One must remember that only a small number of prisoners remain incarcerated permanently. The majority of them will eventually return to society and if their experience in prison was characterised by hostile and often violent treatment by the prison guards, no mental health care and insufficient physical care, it is unrealistic to expect they will drastically change and fit in society.

Moreover, studies show that in the US, 85,4 % of inmates completed only high-school education or lower, almost 80% of inmates lack any real work experience and only about 10% were in active employment four consecutive years prior to their arrest. At the same time, the educational and vocational programs in American prisons are considered to be among the worst. Scandinavia has been laughed at due to the arts and crafts classes, cooking programs and the variety of other courses that the prisoners can acquire skills through. However, most inmates find a job within 3 months of their release as they have a wider range of skills that can be attractive on the job market.

On an emotional level, the Scandinavian prison system may seem like a vacation rather than a punishment. But one must raise the question, what is the actual role of prison? To punish or to rehabilitate? Isn’t the point of jail to temporarily remove a dangerous individual from society, then make sure that he will be able to choose a better path after release instead of immediately returning to the criminal lifestyle? Considering the record low recidivism rate, Norway must be doing something right.