At a prisons Reintegration in Australia in 2017, former NSW Inspector of
Custodial Services, John Paget, said that the $3.8 billion expansion of NSW
prisons, including 7,000 extra beds show “the expensive failure of public policy in Australia”.1
This perspective provides a useful starting point
for comparing prison retributive expansion in Australia with the successful rehabilitative
systems in Norway and The Netherlands.
This comparison could not have taken place in 1984
when the Norwegian and Dutch prison systems were clearly
similar to that in Australia today. However,
new policies in the Netherlands that
focus on rehabilitation and promote a reduction in the crime rate have allowed the successful closure of several
throughout the country.
Australia’s justice system, however, is based on retributive and
deterrence-based practices. Rates of re-offending
are high, with approximately 45% of inmates
returning to prison within just two years.2
Not only do high recidivism rates
stretch prison resources and cause overcrowding, this rate of re-offending also
increases the number of communities affected by crime.
restorative justice models used in Norwegian and Dutch prisons have proven to reverse these negative effects and
have created safer communities. A
on education and social services better prepare inmates for life after prison
and future social integration. Bastoy
Prison governor and clinical psychologist, Arne
Wilson, argues that prisons should
simply deprive inmates of liberty, rather than provide inhumane conditions that prevent them from functioning as part of
The Australian Prison System
The underlying principle governing the Australian penal system,
in contrast to that of Norway’s and the Netherlands’
is retribution and deprivation.
Australia has higher recidivism rates and is more focused on locking up
offenders and punishing them than on keeping them out of the system and
NSW has the highest state prison population at 12,729 as of
September 2016. This represents an
increase of over 21% between 2014-2016.33
In NSW, 48% of inmates returned
to prison within two years, contributing to the rise of the prison population.
Australia’s tough stance
on crime is overcrowding the prison system and costing taxpayers approximately
$3.8 billion a year. The issue is extensive, with reports of inmates sleeping on
mattresses on the floor and in foldout beds in Queensland, Victorian and South
Australian facilities. Overcrowding results in increased violence inside
prisons, amongst prisoners themselves and between prisoners and guards.34
As the NSW Auditor-General’s Report
notes in 2015, “overcrowding of correctional centres can negatively impact all
aspects of custodial life, and ultimately result in higher re-offending rates”.35
In NSW, a reported decrease in crime rates was accompanied by a
7% increase in prison population, highlighting the dismal failure of
imprisonment as an effective deterrent. Furthermore, contrary to the NSW
Department of Corrective Service’s goal of reducing adult rates of re-offending
by 5% by the year 2019, the rate of adult re-offending has continued to climb.36
The NSW Auditor-General’s Report
found a 35.9% rate of recidivism within one year of release in 31 December 2013.
This rate of re-offending notably increased to 45.8% by 30 June
2014, within two years of release. These rates are not limited to NSW and, as
shown below, demonstrate a national upward trend in adult re-offending, a clear indication that the prison
system is not achieving the aim of reducing recidivism. This is further
elucidated by the national imprisonment rate increasing by 6% over the 2015-16
The strain on prison infrastructure and services has resulted in
deteriorating prisoner health conditions and rising incidents of self-harm. As
the inmate / parole officer ratio increases, the attempt to rehabilitate and
reintegrate prisoners into society has become more difficult. In contrast, Dutch
prisons employ numerous social workers, mental health professionals and lawyers
to support prisoner rehabilitation.37
The consequences of overcrowding of prisons includes, but is not
restricted to, reduced access to adequate support and education opportunities.
The NSW prison system, for example, sometimes houses three inmates per two-man
cell, with more than 50 inmates sharing a phone.38
Meanwhile, Queensland’s prison population increased by 20% in
2014 and 2015, resulting in 1,600 prisoners sharing cells.39
In the ACT, 46 detainees were
housed in the 30-bed centre.40
In Victoria, prisoners were forced to sleep on foldout beds in
common rooms and visiting areas for more than a year. The Police Union reported
that overcrowding leads to an increase in prisoner tension, which means gaining
the cooperation of prisoners is much more difficult. This has led to an increase
in violence and escapes.41
In South Australia, a bed shortage was forcing “unsuitable
prisoners” into the low and medium-security Mobilong Prison, which was a risk
for prison guards.
In Western Australia, the Office of the Inspector of Custodial
Services has called for a new prison to be built as “the system is already
According to Auditor-General, Tony Whitfield, overcrowding has
undermined confidence in the justice system and the effectiveness of prisons.
His report outlines the ineffectiveness of Corrective Service NSW’s (CSNSW)
performance framework.43 Specifically, from 2014-15, only five of
12 organisational targets of public correctional centres were met. Targets that
were not met include no prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and eight hours’ time out
of cells for inmates in secure facilities.44
In response, the NSW government’s Better Prisons reform program,
which commenced in March 2016, aims to address these issues. The
program seeks to lift standards and strengthen accountability of prisons by
requiring NSW prisons to meet performance targets. The project is designed so that
rates of recidivism are reduced, community protection is increased, and prison
standards are lifted.45
For example, under the program, the NSW government’s $3.8
billion investment over four years will create thousands of new beds for inmates in
the state’s prison system in response to increasing inmate numbers. Already
this has funded the delivery of an extra 1,500 beds within existing prisons.46
One can only ask why Australian governments focus on building prisons when
Scandinavian governments are closing them. Is it because Australia’s convict
past is genetically inheritable, or does it have something to do with prevailing
The comparisons between Australian and British prisons with
Norwegian and Dutch prisons have elicited some insights and areas for
improvements for the Australian prison system. Australia and Britain could
embody the principles underlying Norway and the Netherlands’s treatment of
prisoners to firstly, increase prospects of reintegration into communities upon
prisoners’ release, and secondly, to lower recidivism rates after release.
The Norwegian and Dutch prisons’ commitment to restorative
justice and reintegration can be observed by the many facilities prisoners are
afforded in prison. The provision of educational resources, training and skills
building programs have promoted and sustained change and rehabilitation during
and after prisoners’ sentences.
The close proximity of Norwegian and Dutch prisons to prisoners’
local communities limits the negative emotional distress that comes from
adjusting to prison conditions. The success of their less punitive
“pleasant-prison” philosophy can be observed by the 10% recidivism rate.
Conversely, the terrible and arguably inhumane conditions of
Australian prisons, and the lack of facilities and programs that may promote
change for prisoners, has resulted in a 60% recidivism rate, with 48% of
convicted NSW offenders returning to prison two years after release.
Furthermore, the “tough
on crime” stance of Australian authorities has led to overcrowding in Australian
prisons, which have in turn led to escalated violence and rioting inside
As a result of
overcrowding, prisoners have less access to adequate support, education and
This vicious circle highlights the limits of Australian and
British correction models.
The limits to vote, and restrictions on employment, housing and
public assistance mean that Australian and British prisoners are not engaged
with their communities.
Therefore, the prospects of their successful rehabilitation and
reintegration after release are limited. This increases rates of recidivism.
In the Netherlands and Norway’s prisons the belief that
prisoners should be treated as much as possible like normal civilians is a prime
reason for their low incarceration and recidivism rates.
Australia has much to benefit by adopting the practice, policies
and philosophy of the Norwegian and Dutch penal systems.
'Open' prisons, in which detainees are allowed to live like regular citizens,
should be a model for the U.S.
Suomenlinna Island Prison
Suomenlinna Island has hosted an “open”
prison since 1971. The 95 male prisoners leave the prison grounds each day to do
the township’s general maintenance or commute to the mainland for work or study.
Serving time for theft, drug trafficking, assault, or murder, all the men here
are on the verge of release.
Cellblocks look like dorms at a state university. Though worse for wear, rooms
feature flat-screen TVs, sound systems, and mini-refrigerators for the prisoners
who can afford to rent them for prison-labor wages of 4.10 to 7.3 Euros per hour
($5.30 to $9.50). With electronic monitoring, prisoners are allowed to spend
time with their families in Helsinki. Men here enjoy a screened barbecue pit, a
gym, and a dining hall where prisoners and staff eat together. Prisoners
throughout Scandinavia wear their own clothes. Officers wear navy slacks,
powder-blue shirts, nametags and shoulder bars; but they carry no batons,
handcuffs, Tasers or pepper-spray. The assistant warden who has led Linda and me
around, Timo, looks like a wizened roadie: graying beard, black vest and jeans,
red shirt, biker boots, and a taste for slim cigars.
One might wonder
just where is the “prison” part of this Scandinavian open prison. Where are the
impenetrable barriers? The punishing conditions that satisfy an American sense
First, an important caveat: Nordic prisons are not all open facilities. Closed
prisons here date to the mid-19th century, copied from Philadelphia’s Eastern
State, or New York’s Auburn, back when those prisons represented models of
humane treatment. To an American eye, these prisons look like prisons: 10-meter
walls, cameras, steel doors. I’ve heard men describe Scandinavian closed-prison
conditions in ways that echo those of the American prison where I have led a
writing workshop since 2006: officials intent on making life onerous, long hours
in lockup, arbitrarily enforced rules.
Yet inside the four
high-security prisons I’ve visited in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland,
common areas included table tennis, pool tables, steel darts, and aquariums.
Prisoner art ornamented walls painted in mild greens and browns and blues. But
the most profound difference is that correctional officers fill both
rehabilitative and security roles. Each prisoner has a “contact officer” who
monitors and helps advance progress toward return to the world outside—a
practice introduced to help officers avoid the damage experienced by
performing purely punitive functions: stress, hypertension, alcoholism, suicide,
and other job-related hazards that today plague American corrections officers,
an average life expectancy of
This is all possible because, throughout Scandinavia, criminal justice policy
rarely enters political debate. Decisions about best practices are left to
professionals in the field, who are often published criminologists and consult
closely with academics. Sustaining the barrier between populist politics and
results-based prison policy are media that don’t sensationalize crime—if they
report it at all. And all of this takes place in nations with established
histories of consensual politics, relatively small and homogenous populations,
and the best social service networks in the world, including the best public
education. Standing outside a Nordic closed prison, the American son would have
felt perfectly at ease. But inside, northern Europe’s closed facilities operate
along the lines of humanism that American prisons abandoned early, under a host
of pressures -- such as overcrowding, the push to make prisons profitable by
contracting out collective labor, the use of unpaid prisoners as private
farmhands, and, since 1973, the rise of an $80 billion mass incarceration
industry. There is also the matter of scale. The prison population of Sweden
(6,900) is less than half the population of Rikers Island at its height
(14,000). Several prisons in the U.S. each hold nearly twice the prison
population of Finland. This is not simply the difference between large and much
smaller countries. U.S. incarceration rates are the highest in the world, about
10 times those throughout Scandinavia, which are among the world’s lowest.
In 1993, Norwegian
criminologist Nils Christie (a major influence on Scandinavian penal policy) had
already unpacked this phenomenon. In Crime Control as Industry, Christie
concluded that the more unlike oneself the imagined perpetrator of crime, the
harsher the conditions one will agree to impose upon convicted criminals, and
the greater the range of acts one will agree should be designated as crimes.
More homogeneous nations institutionalize mercy, which is to say they attend
more closely to the circumstances surrounding individual criminal acts. The
opposite tendency, expressed in mandatory sentencing and indiscriminate “three
strikes” laws, not only results from, but widens social distance. The harshness
of the punishment that fearful voters are convinced is the only thing that works
on people who don’t think or act like them becomes a measure of the moral
distance between these voters and people identified as criminals.
Author Kenneth E.
Hartman has lived inside California prisons for over three decades. In an essay
in the forthcoming book, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America,
he speaks to why that system sees 75
percent of all repeat parolees back within three years:
Most prisoners are uneducated, riddled with unresolved traumas and ill-treated
mental health problems, drug and alcohol addictions, and self-esteem issues far
too often bordering on the pathological. The vast majority has never received
competent health care, mental health care, drug treatment, education or even an
opportunity to look at themselves as humans. Had any of these far less draconian
interventions been tried… no doubt many of my peers would be leading productive
lives. We internalize the separation and removal, the assumed less-than status,
and hold up the idiotic and vainglorious pride we pretend to, like clown’s
make-up, to hide our shame. In the end, the vast majority of us become exactly
who we are told we are: violent, irrational, and incapable of conducting
ourselves like conscious adults. It is a tragic opera with an obvious outcome.
Nothing else works is not a statement of fact; it is the declaration of
an ideology. This ideology holds that punishment, for the sake of the infliction
of pain, is the logical response to all misbehavior. It is also a convenient
cover story behind which powerful special interest groups hide.
Hartman echoes the observations of the same Black Power prison writers of the
1960s and ‘70s, whose insights helped inspire white backlash: Convicted
criminals bring to prison issues that devolve directly from poverty and
poverty’s traumatic fallout: broken and abusive homes, communities and schools;
mental illness, alcoholism, and addiction. Rather than remediating the effects
of these issues, prisons tend to institutionalize them.
Those of us in the
virtually prison-immune demographics also fail to credit convicted people with
the simple capacity to see and understand where they are. No imprisoned American
has to be told she has been left to the whims of under-screened and
under-trained staff, most of whom are also from impoverished circumstances. They
see staff rewarded with promotion for harsh treatment of prisoners and on the
way to solid pensions. They know that it doesn’t matter what potential for
shame, for self-castigation, penitence, or desire to make amends resides inside
any American prisoner. Parole decisions are made by political appointees who
watch the backs of their patrons. The
system itself breeds cynical resentment. Witnessing the humiliation, racism, and
physical assault perpetrated against prisoners—by staff, or tolerated between
prisoners—can overfill the psychological space where reflection and
self-searching might occur.
Now imagine yourself
in a prison that commands a view from a tourist brochure. Your cell phone lies
on a shelf, next to a TV and CD player, inside a prison that lets you go to paid
work or study. There is no perimeter wall. Prison staff will help you with
free-world social services to cover a missed month’s rent on your family’s
apartment. Another will help you look for work, or for the next stage of
education. Imagine yourself a prisoner who knows he is in prison for what he
did, not because of his color or class, or because, lacking the resources for a
proper defense, he plea-bargained under threat of near-geological years of
incarceration. But also imagine living on this lovely island knowing, every
minute of every day, that this is not your home, these people are not
your family, your friends, your children, and you are always one misstep from a
cell in a closed prison. You have strict curfews. In town you carry an
electronic anklet. Yet nothing here feels unfair or unreasonable. You have,
after all, committed a crime serious enough to make a range of other remedies
untenable. Nothing you can see or touch or smell or taste, and no interaction
with staff gives you anything to blame or resent about the system that brought
This is the polished
glass nightmare. Every emotional discomfort, every moment of remorse that you
might try to cover with resentment of the system, everything you try to grip
onto to crawl away from personal responsibility slides back into the pit of the
self. Judges and prosecutors are unelected professionals who are under political
pressure only to minimize prison populations. The message everywhere you
look and walk is the same. You did this to yourself. You sit in a
university classroom, but you harbor a secret. You are not like the others. On
the way to work, you walk along a lovely sea wall, among kids and adults on
holiday, but you know you are not free. You look like them; they never raise an
eyebrow at you. But you know. You are under quarantine, and the disease
is the past you made for yourself. Everything is being done to help and prepare
you to clear this secret and live again like others. But the weight, finally,
rests with you. This truly existential weight is implicit in the principle of
normality, which is practiced throughout Scandinavian prisons: “The punishment
is the restriction of liberty; no other rights have been removed,”
reads a fact sheet
on criminal services in Norway. “During the serving of a sentence, life inside
will resemble life outside as much as possible. You need a reason to deny a
sentenced offender his rights, not to grant them. Progression through a sentence
should be aimed as much as possible at returning to the community. The more
closed a system is, the harder it will be to return to freedom.”
One has to wonder if
10 years in such a glass funnel, directing all shame, anger and recrimination
back onto oneself is not a morally harsher sentence than twice that time inside
a 24-hour war zone where some of the most powerful warriors wear state uniforms,
where family visits are made into scenes of collective humiliation, and where
the few rehabilitative programs are run either by other prisoners or by
unionized staff who suffer even less scrutiny than guards.
Inside U.S. prisons,
decades can be filled with the labor of simple survival. Reflection upon the
decisions that brought anyone to confinement must overcome the bitterness evoked
by a system that sustains such an environment.
I’ve heard older men describe how they
came in cocky, then grew into shame and remorse.
Yet their regret is regularly
overshadowed by anger against the arbitrary suffering that the prison
perpetrates. These older, wiser men, like Kenneth Hartman, know this is
the toughest challenge inside. The chaos of the life that put them in prison
eventually evolves into the self-understanding that comes with age and assuming
the weight of their crimes. But then begins the daily labor of denying the
prison its power to turn them into the animals it sees in condemned people. As
Rutgers University professor of education, Benjamin Justice, and Yale Law
professor Tracey Meares
observe, the overt
curriculum of the system is about fairness, due process, and protection of
law-abiding citizens. But for the objects of policing and punishment, “the
American criminal justice system offers…race- and class‐based
lessons on who is a citizen deserving of fairness and justice and who
constitutes a group of dangerous others deserving of severe punishment,
monitoring, and virtual branding.”
For a forthcoming
book and digital archive, over the past four years I have been soliciting,
reading, and editing non-fiction essays by incarcerated Americans writing about
their experience inside—essays from over half the states, by black, white,
Latina/o, Native American, and Asian and Pacific Island prisoners; by men,
women, and gender-variant prisoners; by first-timers and by people who were
first locked up when Lyndon Johnson was president.
Though many praise individuals who have
helped them inside, not one essay among several hundred expresses the belief
that the system exists at its current scale for any other reason than the
tax-funded profits and jobs it provides.
Beatings and purely
arbitrary punishment are the norm. Health care is poor when it is not dangerous.
In many facilities, programs for addicts
and alcoholics (who make up 85 percent of those convicted of violent crimes) are
so inadequate that the names on waiting lists today will wait decades for help.
And no matter the race of the writer, the racism within the system is assumed if
not explicitly criticized. What political prisoner, reformer, and eventual
California prison administrator Kate Richards O’Hare wrote in her book In
Prison in 1923 remains true today: “…by the workings of the prison system
society commits every crime against the criminal that the criminal is charged
with committing against society.”
are roughly as racially and ethnically homogeneous as American prisons: 70
percent of Nordic prisoners are ethnically white citizens; the other 30 percent
are foreign-born (mostly from other EU countries).
In U.S. prisons,
ethnic and racial minorities make up over 60 percent of the population.
The difference is
that the majority of Scandinavian prisoners look like the majority—including the
voting majority—outside. Laws, enforcement policies, and prison practices are
those that the majority of citizens assume would work for themselves. Whatever
other differences may exist between law-abiding families and people convicted of
crimes, the prison system itself does not seek to widen the social distance
of that, when criminals in Norway leave prison, they stay out.
It has one of the lowest recidivism
rates in the world at
20%. The US has one
of the highest: 76.6% of prisoners are re-arrested within five years.
also has a relatively low level of crime compared to the US, according
to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. The majority of crimes reported
to police there are theft-related incidents, and violent crime is mostly
confined to areas with drug trafficking and gang problems.
that information, it’s safe to assume
Norway’s criminal justice system is doing something right. Few citizens
there go to prison, and those who do usually go only once. So how does Norway
accomplish this feat? The country relies on a concept called “restorative
justice,” which aims to repair the harm caused by crime rather than
punish people. This system focuses on rehabilitating prisoners.
Norway adopts a less punitive approach than the US and focuses on
making sure prisoners don’t come back. A 2007 report
on recidivism released by the US Department of Justice found that
strict incarceration actually increases offender recidivism, while facilities
that incorporate “cognitive-behavioural programs rooted in social learning
theory” are the most effective at keeping ex-cons out of jail.
working within Norway’s prison system, the short sentences and somewhat
luxurious accommodations make complete sense. As Are
Hoidel, Halden Prison’s director, puts it: “Every inmates in
Norwegian prison are going back to the society.
Do you want people who are angry — or
people who are rehabilitated?”
"In an insightful article intheAtlantic,
Doran Larson explains how his research on prisons revealed that
Nordic countries' rehabilitative ethos produces tangible results for
those countries. Even in the high-security prisons he visited in
Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland, he observed some remarkable
Common areas included table tennis, pool tables, steel
darts and aquariums. Prisoner art ornamented walls painted
in mild greens and browns and blues. But the most profound
difference is that correctional officers fill both
rehabilitative and security roles.
Each prisoner has a
"contact officer" who monitors and helps advance progress
toward return to the world outside — a practice introduced
to help officers avoid the damage experienced by performing
purely punitive functions.
Larson contends that open
prison punishments can be more effective than closed prison
punishments in that they don't distract the prisoner from the
misdeeds that brought them there, as harsh American prisons often