“Oh this is a beautiful restaurant, I’m sure the food is delicious.” My mother exclaimed as the driver started to slow down near a lush estate in the Danish countryside on a trip to Copenhagen in 2018. The driver looked at my mother in silence before breaking out in laughter. “This isn’t your restaurant ma’am. This is a prison.” He managed to spit out in between bouts of laughter. My mother looked mortified, while the rest of us gaped like foolish monkeys. I think I felt my jaw drop to the floor. Maybe our standards are just low for the justice system coming from the United States, but I was pretty sure only people like Kim Kardashian went to prison in places like that, not average joes who committed, you know, your good ole’ everyday felonies. Things are run quite differently in Scandinavian prisons.
Scandinavian prisons run after the model that “if you treat prisoners like animals, they will act like animals.” They understand that in order to reduce crime rates and double offenses, you need to rehabilitate prisoners. I mean, there is obviously a reason they are in prison, right? Looking out the window from the middle seat of our cramped car, I saw groups of individuals tending to full and robust gardens next to blocks of buildings with plenty of natural light. Our driver explained that most cells resemble an American college dorm room. They aren’t what you would want for a luxury apartment, but they definitely aren’t the grey metal asylums that you see in American prisons.
He then went on to explain that depending on a person’s charges, they slowly gain back their everyday responsibilities with supervision, to help them readjust to a free society. For example, once you have served a certain amount of time, you start to gain normal privileges again such as working a part-time job, going to the grocery store, and getting supervised weekend visits at home. Of course, this is for low-level offenses, and the punishments vary depending on the severity of the crime, but the rehabilitation process has had incredible success rates for the formerly imprisoned.
For example, in Norway, the maximum sentence is 21 years, and the recidivism rate is 20% after prisoners are released. Security is not maximized, and prisoners are trusted. So what’s the deal? Why are these prisoners so human? Because they are humans, just like us. With feelings. They suffer from drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, childhood trauma, suicide, starvation, bullying, and more. Just like the rest of the world, they are capable of change. Further, in Norway, there are different levels of prison, where you go to different prisons, also referred to as a “closed” prison, where you would start out, and then end up at an “open” prison, before returning back to your normal suburb with friendly neighbors.
As an American, I was shocked to witness this system. Coming from a place where mass incarceration is mainstream, I learned from a very young age that I should fear prisons. A shudder always was sent down my spine when I passed the one prison in my town that was in the middle of my favorite shopping streets. In America, we know there is a problem, but when prisoners come back in front of the jury to face another ten years in prison after their fourth crime, we turn a blind eye. We know that our crime rates are that of some of the highest in the world, but when we release criminals from prison and they become homeless, dealing with a drug addiction they were admitted for in the first place, we act confused. Our justice system chews people up and spits them out and something needs to change. Let’s take a page out of our Scandinavian neighbor’s books and learn that low-level offenders make up over 25% of the American prisons, and we could significantly reduce that by turning our current justice path to one that is focused on rehabilitation.
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