Nordic Open Prison System
Is British society ready to view incarceration from a progressive perspective?
photo by Tert AM (Flickr)
by Gabija Barnard
How would you feel seeing a murderer farming a plot of land in the sunshine, before surfing the web and relaxing in a sauna – all this while in prison for a terrible crime? Would the answer be different with the knowledge that this criminal is much less likely to commit another crime upon release than one from a more 'traditional' prison? As the British prison system faces a crisis, these are the questions society has to answer for itself.
It can be tempting, of course, to see incarceration as a form of revenge. Especially when it comes to crimes involving children, mass murder, and the like. A lifetime rotting in a cell may appear to be the perpetrator's just dessert. In many of us there is still an almost perverse enjoyment of the suffering of others, and if those others are criminals themselves, we need not feel guilty about wishing them less than good fortunes.
Here, we must ask ourselves what we value more: vengeance and punishment, or redemption and a healthy society. While it may not completely grant a sense of justice, the Scandinavian prison system does give results. Norway enjoys the lowest recidivism rates in the world, with only 20% of all criminals reoffending (the European average being approximately 70%). Furthermore, as a country with nearly 5 million people, Norway has approximately 4,000 in jail. While Bastoy, Norway's minimum-security prison island, is an exceptional place, it is also one of the least dehumanizing, with prisoners given access to education, self-improvement, internet and television, as well as responsibilities within their community.
By contrast, the prison system in the UK is grim and gloomy. Based on 2017 statistics, self-harm in British prisons is on the rise, with a 12% increase in the last year; between 2006 and 2016, the rate of self-harm has increased by 109%. According to an investigation conducted by The Observer, 44% of prisons provide insufficient safety measures, 47% provide poor access to meaningful activities, and 69% of prisons are overcrowded.
The situation within British incarceration institutions has been branded a crisis, with many culprits named so far: from underfunding to the political turmoil within the country. Prisons minister Rory Stewart, for one, is of the belief that the main problem is drugs: "Criminal gangs have become ever more skilled at pouring new psychoactive drugs into prisons. And partly as a result of these drugs, there are increasing levels of violence committed by prisoners, and horrifying rates of self-harm. Half of the prisoners re-offend within a year of leaving custody – costing billions to the economy – and, more importantly, ruining the lives of tens of thousands of victims."
At first glance, it would appear that the Norwegian method is clearly superior, healthier and more humane. Be that as it may, it is too soon for Britain to tear down the entrenched structures and begin construction on their ashes. Reaching its current state did take Norway some time: in the 1960s, the country was still using a punitive or retributive justice system and saw a recidivism rate of 91%. As time went on, changes were made, step by step: in 1970, forced labour was abolished, then, in 1975, juvenile delinquency centres followed suit.
It was in 1982 that Bastoy prison was founded, and to this day it remains a controversial institution. Critics have labelled it as 'cushy' and 'luxurious', whereas tabloids like to scuff at the methods it employs – even though this particular prison has a re-offence rate of a mere 16%.
Bastoy is the product of many years of consistent judiciary reform, social evolution, and progressive thought. Both society and politicians must be on board for such a project to work and, sadly, Britain is just not there yet. As the country squabbles over Brexit, issues like education, health, and incarceration are left to wither, which is exactly what the statistics are portraying. Furthermore, as tabloids fuel rage over progressive thought and methods, society, or at least part of it, is set up to resist change, even if it is proved to be positive.
Petter, a drug smuggler currently residing in Bastoy, explains his time in prison thus: "It's like living in a village, a community. Everybody has to work. But we have free time so we can do some fishing, or in the summer we can swim off the beach. We know we are prisoners but here we feel like people." To reach the results Norway has achieved, we also must learn to see criminals as people, even if it is a difficult thing to do. So far, British society is not ready for such a shift.