Norway’s Open Prison System

There’s not really a lot of things that I’m dead certain on, but I’ve learned something in the last few years that I will forever take a brutal stance on: that the American prison system does not work.

As I’ve been regularly corrected that “jail” is not “prison”, I will state that this applies to our “jail” systems as well.

I’ve come by this perspective through first hand experience. Not by going to prison or jail myself, but by watching a close friend make steady progress only to throw it all away because of the jail time he was required to serve. This particular friend of mine struggles with alcohol abuse, and unfortunately seems to get in petty trouble with the law every time he gets intoxicated. He’s been in and out of jail at least four times for various alcohol-related crimes, and can’t seem to ever get back on track before being set right back at square one after coming out of a long and destructive jail term.

This friend of mine has tried and tried HARD to stop drinking. In fact, he’s been clean for months at a time, only to take up drinking again after being released from jail. The typical cycle that I’ve seen goes something like this:

  1. After serving a month’s time, he’s finally released from jail.
  2. It may be several days; it may be several weeks; but eventually, he gets drunk. He’s been sheltered for so long that he simply doesn’t know how to behave himself, and he’s still ticked off at the world from his jail time.
  3. In his drunken state he does something stupid and gets arrested.
  4. He gets scared, can’t believe how stupid he was (again), and vows to never drink again. He doesn’t, for the time being.
  5. The judge sentences him something like one or two months of jail time for his actions, to be served two months in the future.
  6. He gets help, doesn’t drink, and lives life as a responsible and sober human being for the next two months.
  7. He humbly turns himself in for his jail time (literally walking to the jail).
  8. Slowly but surely his anger builds and his opinion of himself lowers. When he gets out, all of his previous progress is ruined, and the whole process starts all over again.

I’ve seen this whole damned process happen, in full, at least three times. Pieces of it have happened many more times. He’s stuck in a society that refuses to allow him to improve. It’s been extremely frustrating for my wife and I because we have been largely responsible for his past progress (he’s lived with us twice). And yet, by the end we knew full well what the next jail term would do. And sure enough, it never fails to destroy any progress that was made.

Think for a second what the reasons behind this behavior might be. How would you respond to being locked in a cage for the vast majority of your days? Without any respectful human interaction? Without any decent amenities? I know I would turn into a bitter, angry, and troubled human being. Would this really do any good for anyone?

I realize that there are occasional “I turned my life around” stories that we hear about from time to time, but they are few and far between. For most people, confinement and a lack of love have a very negative affect. They generate hatred, not humility and respect for others. Hating on criminals only makes them haters. It’s no secret that hate breeds hate. The few positive outcomes are the result of some sort of external positive influence (be it a particularly caring officer, volunteer, personal faith, or even possibly another inmate); these outcomes are never simply the result of the system.

I’ve had these views for a long while, but until now did not have what I believed to be a true or even a partial “fix” for the system. However, I read an article recently about Norway’s “open prison system” that opened my eyes:

I would encourage you to read the above article, but in a nutshell, prisoners are sent to an island community where they work normal hours and live a normal (though humble) lifestyle. They can enjoy the community, pride themselves in their work, and enjoy enough freedom to at least keep themselves sane. I imagine there’s still plenty of discipline, and I’m sure I wouldn’t exactly enjoy my time there, but it’s a step toward encouraging growth, instead of labeling the down and out as permanent losers and never allowing them to improve.

Granted, the system isn’t perfect (no system would be), but it is certainly closer to a humane correctional system. I believe it’s our responsibility to speak up about our failed correctional system and do everything we can to improve it. This is the direction we need to take.

There’s lots of room for further discussion (from scare tactics to the cost of implementing such a system to the possible politics), but I’ll leave that wide open for the comments. Please share your thoughts. :)

This entry was posted in Culture, Freedom, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Norway’s Open Prison System

  1. I have come to similar views.  But I have also come to acknowledge that the current penal system isn’t a total failure.  It is productive for some inmates, and it does help to segregate pathologically problem  people from society.
    Karl Menninger’s “The Crime of Punishment” opened my eyes back in 1978 when I was offering weekly counseling services to inmates.  There clearly needs to be more emphasis on reform rather than punishment.
    Cost is a huge factor that discourages changing the system.  Fortunately, some leaders in penal reform recognize that it will probably cost more to do nothing.  Our prisons continue to get larger and larger, and the costs of building and maintaining more prisons and caring for more prisoners is exorbitant.
    Politicians won’t address the issue until the public outcry demands it.  Unfortunately, the common mentality of the public is to demand stronger penalties for crimes and for politicians to be “tough on crime.”
    Such simplistic slogans resonate well with the populace, but they are very costly in the short and long run.  Worse yet, these slogans really don’t solve the problem of bad behavior.

  2. Jason Carr says:

    No kidding, Tom; thanks for your thoughts.

    I don’t think there’s really any such thing as being “tough on crime”.  Being “tough on crime” is really just hating on criminals.  And this method is only going to grow our prison population, turning bad boys into permanent failures.  Which would be more costly, housing an endlessly growing population of angry people or running some sort of a productive and self-reliant society?

    The fact that this approach resonates well with the populace just shows how hateful and judgmental the populace really is.  It’s enough to (once again) make me hang my head in shame.

    Perhaps the penal system isn’t a total failure, but I do not look at the segregation of inmates from society as any form of a success.  If we are going to permanently lock them away and never give them any chance for improvement, we might as well just murder them all.  The purpose behind our correctional system should be just that, correctional.  It has to be a temporary situation with the goal of improvement.  The goals of our current system do not focus on improvement, and as a result, we are running into deeper and deeper financial and moral issues.

  3. Amber Carr says:

    Those who are the hardest to love need the love the most. Everyone needs love.. but for some, love is scarce. And how can we blame them for not knowing how to live a life of love?

  4. Jason Carr says:

    We certainly can’t blame them when we keep throwing hatred at them…

  5. Karrie says:

    Norwegian prison seems very humane and goal-oriented.  Perhaps the further threat of punishment is to be served lutefisk and potoklub every day!  My grandmother tired to teach us how to prepare and eat that stuff,  no wonder Scandinavians once had the highest rate of suicide!
    But seriously, folks!  The American prison system is extremely flawed, inhumane, and racially biased.  It is also a very old system with many penitentiaries constructed early in the last century or even earlier.  Thinking that incarceration under such circumstances alleviates our society’s problems needs to be examined.
    This last spring I attended the annual meetings of the American Association of Museums in Philadelphia.  While many of the host institutions were oriented toward arts, science, and history, one of the “museums” hosting events was the Eastern State Penitentiary Museum.  I did not go to their event but had been told by friends who did that even the empty building seems shrouded in a pall and  groans under its own oppressive past.
    I will pray for your friend and ask that the pain and darkness that has dominated his life be replaced with love and light.  You are good friends to try and help his situation.  His situation, however, requires more than you can handle.  Are there professionals in town that can help?

  6. Amber Carr says:

    He’s in Las Vegas now with his Uncle… (probably not such a good place for him to be) but… he just keeps trying new places and new things to try to get away from it all.

  7. Jason Carr says:

    Agreed, Karrie.  He’s long gone for right now, though, unfortunately.  Perhaps if the state would have tried to get him some REAL help instead of throwing him in jail he’d be doing better.  I do know that he did attend some AA (or similar) meetings at one point, though.  No idea what happened to that.

    It would be very interesting to me to visit a penitentiary museum, but I can’t imagine it would be very fun, either.  I can imagine how creepy and disgusting it would feel.  I’m creeped out by our local Ogle County jail for heaven’s sake. ;)

Leave a Reply