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"Why Scandinavian Prisons Are Superior"
November 3, 2013 9:05 AM   Subscribe

On Scandinavian prisons: why they are superior; what Norwegian high-security prisons are like; about a lower security Norwegian prison.
posted by insectosaurus (36 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
Incredible that Scandinavian prisoners can potentially earn over 30% more money-per-hour than innocent of crime-but-not-poverty USA minimum wagers.

(($9.50 - $7.25) / $7.25) * 100 = +31.03%

Maximum UNICOR wages in dollars per hour: $1.15.

(($9.50 - $1.15) / $1.15) * 100 = +726.08%

The numbers say a lot about how bottom rung caste systems are institutionally defined in the United States by comparison, obvious assumptions being what they may.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:53 AM on November 3, 2013 [10 favorites]


Because they don't house people like cord wood and intentionally overcrowd them via a public-private cabal that ensures that 20% of a certain segment of society is incarcerated there?
posted by NiteMayr at 10:06 AM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


I am increasingly of the opinion that the central problem is that the American people do not care what works. They care which "solutions" feel morally sound when summed up in a dozen words or less. And they hate the idea that someone, somewhere might get some benefit they do not deserve.

They do not care that sex education and free distribution of prophylactics dramatically decrease teen pregnancy and STDs. They care whether some shiftless kids might get laid and their money might have helped. They don't care if food stamps have a remarkable multiplier effect and are effective not just as public assistance, but as economic stimulus. They care whether or not someone, somewhere might be getting free money they don't deserve and then spending it on things they find frivolous. And they certainly don't care whether there are penal system models that could reduce recidivism at a lower cost to tax payers. They care whether whether the less than human prisoners in our system might be enjoying some benefit somehow that "rewards" them for their crime.

I don't even know how you argue with this view of the world with logic and facts, because people don't give a shit.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:12 AM on November 3, 2013 [185 favorites]


I've been wondering lately if we in the U.S. treated victims of crime better, maybe we wouldn't be so determined to see the criminals suffer.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:19 AM on November 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


I was all prepared to get my hate on for the existential danger of the US judicial-prison complex until I read the article.

Now, instead, I feel a little bit of hope for the future.
posted by digitalprimate at 10:25 AM on November 3, 2013


If we truly embrace the notion of restorative justice rather than punitive justice then maybe we will realise that restoring individuals to enable them to become productive, balanced, healthy people should be the objective.
Taking restorative justice further maybe we should begin restoring communities that imprison their inhabitants in poverty, neglect, lack of opportunity and hopelessness.
posted by manoffewwords at 10:26 AM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't get it. how to be a prison if its not a sadomasochist venting of class and racial frustration? I thought that was the point?
posted by The Whelk at 10:55 AM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


DirtyOldTown nails it in one.
posted by bashos_frog at 11:05 AM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


An old partner of mine studied law here in Sweden. She mentioned once that there's basically two schools of prisons in modern Western society:

* The American model, where you imprison people as punishment and workforce.
* The Canadian/Norwegian model, where the ultimate goal is rehabilitation and turning them into productive members of society.

And then there's the Swedish model, which of course has to be a sort of middle ground version of the two because that's just what we do. In Sweden, we're really good at keeping people locked up in a not too unpleasant way. No extra strong focus on either punishment or rehabilitation. We just, like, keep them for a while, and then set them free.
posted by Dee Grim at 11:18 AM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


And then there's the Swedish model,

When I saw The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Mikael Blomkvist's life during incarceration seemed no worse, and in some ways a little better than that of a friend of mine who was working on his doctoral thesis at the time.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:34 AM on November 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


America does not embrace restorative justice or care about what works in a technocratic, public policy sense for two important and interrelated reasons.

First, in the realm of culture, White Americans have not been able to disown the problematic structures of meaning related to social life that arose to accommodate and justify the institutionalized dehumanization of slavery, preferring instead to retain the basics of the meaning structures while continuously striving to bury their origins. These meaning structures are not unique to American on a formal level, but their specifics clearly are and they exert a powerful influence on the way in which collectivities (such as "us" or "people who deserve things") are conceived.

Second, American politicians have been utterly craven in reproducing these meaning structures in order to control the votes of a progressively smaller bloc of citizens. I posit that political struggles can have effects on culture and society by re-affirming and reproducing injustice at the level of meaning: politicians think of their campaigns as necessary tactics and take a straightforwardly rational approach to engineering victory, but is it difficult to imagine that their constant efforts to categorize and evaluate the social world actually affect the way people think? Wouldn't it actually be more surprising if they didn't? All politicians, in some important sense, campaign on the project of finally fixing the social and cultural pathologies connected to those atavistic meaning structures (traditionally, the Left has done so by promising to expand the "us" collectivity while the Right has promised to either re-formalize or informally but effectively reinstantiate the caste system); but because that sort of work is not necessarily their duty as public servants, they can only employ policy to effect changes which may either serve to enable equality or revert to social forms of explicit inequality.

That tension is one reason why we have bizarre legislation such as the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, whose stated goals entailed inculcating a weird sort of cultural and social change rather than improving outcomes or ensuring justice. To wit, the very first sentences of that act: The Congress makes the following findings: (1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society, (2) Marriage is an essential institution of a successful
society which promotes the interests of children. (3) Promotion of responsible fatherhood and motherhood is integral to successful child rearing and the well-being of children


This is about reforming character (of Black people) through government, and is therefore also perhaps the best example of the total success of the neoliberal political agenda in America.

In short: we have cultural problems stemming from America's past which are both directly and indirectly reproduced and perpetuated by (among other forces) political agents. Until Americans can conceive of more just distinctions between the virtuous deserving and the profligate, untrustworthy undeserving, and until they can force the power elite to defend their disproportionate share of wealth on the basis of social justice, the slave society/patriarchal-hegemonic meaning structures will never completely go away and the powerful will continue to exploit and reproduce them.
posted by clockzero at 11:37 AM on November 3, 2013 [18 favorites]


They don't care if food stamps have a remarkable multiplier effect and are effective not just as public assistance, but as economic stimulus.

I see no correlation. Please cite contrary evidence.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:55 AM on November 3, 2013


I am increasingly of the opinion that the central problem is that the American people do not care what works.

I think this is exactly wrong. Aside from the people who believe prison should be some form of earthly hell (who I don't think actually form a majority), most Americans frame questions entirely in terms of "what works." The problem is that "prison" and the justice system that feeds it are entirely integrated into society: it's not a discrete machine that you can engineer.

Prison in the US is a direct reflection of our society. I mean, go watch The Wire if you want to see this point hammered on over and over again. It's not about "what works" it's about realizing that our society, as a whole, has to move in some new directions. Pretending that you can tinker with how prison works is a distraction at best but (I think) really reflects the sort of calculated naivete most liberal-minded Americans have about the society they live in. They want to believe that the world of people moving in and out of the criminal justice system works a lot like the world they live in when the differences are really shocking.

You can't talk about prison without talking about class. And the economic lives of the increasingly thin professional middle classes in the US depend upon the decision, now decades ago, to liquidate the US industrial workforce and use prison, mental health, entertainment, etc. to keep passive a large reserve of people for whom it has been decided for that they can play no meaningful role in society.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:07 PM on November 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


IndigoJones: Please cite contrary evidence.

I had links ready from Moody's, CBBP, USDA, etc., but it seems like a derail, since we're supposed to be talking about prisons. So maybe we could argue that on MeMail, if you like. Like any other truism in economics, it certainly can be argued. But the notion that food stamps offer a multiplier somewhere between 1.75 and 2 to 1 is pretty widely supported.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:17 PM on November 3, 2013 [9 favorites]


The issue in America is the level of politicization of justice. All justice frameworks are impacted by politics. But America's is politicised at local, state and federal level. This makes it especially susceptible both to extremist activists within the system and the lowest common denominator that politics and politicking can produce.

Rehabilitation and complex arguments about investment in cutting recidivism through improving prisoner outcomes are not vote winners. Lock em up and throw away the key win votes when people want justice done. The problem is that rowing back from hard, unproductive retributive justice requires an enlightened electorate and political risk to whoever proposes change.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:44 PM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


I see no correlation.

You're looking at program costs and GDP in isolation from each other. If you're not even assessing correlation graphically by plotting, let alone actually calculating it, then yes, it can be easy to miss it. More importantly, GDP wouldn't necessarily be the relevant dependent variable here anyway, so your model (such as it is) is probably mispecified. This approach is like barging into a debate and saying "I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON!" and expecting that to be taken as evidence of something other than ignorance.
posted by clockzero at 12:52 PM on November 3, 2013 [12 favorites]


I think DirtyOldTown got it right, and I've often repeated the famous Davis X. Machina quote ("The salient fact of American politics is that there are fifty to seventy million voters each of who will volunteer to live, with his family, in a cardboard box under an overpass, and cook sparrows on an old curtain rod, if someone would only guarantee that the black, gay, Hispanic, liberal, whatever, in the next box over doesn’t even have a curtain rod, or a sparrow to put on it."), but I've come to realize over the last few years that the rest are transient.

In American politics, it always and eternally comes down to race. And by race, I mean black; other racial and ethnic prejudices are generally titrated on "how like" the race is to the bigot's twisted view of black people (thus the repeated phenomenon of a previously abused group 'becoming white'). I won't say that there is *no* prejudice that exists beyond that, there are hatreds of Jews and Native Americans that have their own origins and life, but they don't seem to drive American politics in the same way.

So yes, the American people fundamentally like prisons because they can put black people in them. And they have for 150 years.
posted by tavella at 1:09 PM on November 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


I am increasingly of the opinion that the central problem is that the American people do not care what works.

This is true, but it's not an accident, and the people are only partly to blame for it. In Canada, it is an active policy of the current government to elevate prejudice to the status of knowledge and derive policy from that. It's the perfect opportunity to watch the evolution of a semi-rational system into barbarity.
posted by klanawa at 1:22 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


So yes, the American people fundamentally like prisons because they can put black people in them.

Obviously Norway doesn't have enough black people. (/sarcasm)
posted by sneebler at 1:47 PM on November 3, 2013


... the evolution of a semi-rational system into barbarity.

Well, someone's making money at it, so it must be The Right Thing to Do™.
posted by sneebler at 1:49 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Near as I've been able to ascertain, pretty much everything is done better in the Scandinavian countries.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:04 PM on November 3, 2013


Why are Scandinavian prisons superior? Because the whole system that culminates in facilities to house criminals is set on a different set of principles.
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, who have an average life expectancy of 59.

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.
In short, very un-American, by today's standards.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:19 PM on November 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


Aside from the people who believe prison should be some form of earthly hell (who I don't think actually form a majority), most Americans frame questions entirely in terms of "what works."

Respectfully, I have to disagree with this. It's pretty clear that a "what works" approach tends to be upsetting to most Americans. For example, we know that pursuing a responsible federal budget deficit strategy in our current economic situation would help alleviate the suffering of many. Despite this, it is the "National Debt" that ranks highly in issues that concern Americans.

We can prove that single-payer health care systems can be more cost-effective while creating better health outcomes, but such a workable plan is a non-starter among the electorate.

We know that the "War on Drugs" has not reduced drug-use and instead acted as a steroid to the Industrial Prison Complex.

I mean, go watch The Wire if you want to see this point hammered on over and over again. It's not about "what works" it's about realizing that our society, as a whole, has to move in some new directions. Pretending that you can tinker with how prison works is a distraction at best but (I think) really reflects the sort of calculated naivete most liberal-minded Americans have about the society they live in

I think that this isn't quite right. The fundamental lesson of The Wire, for me, is that the tops of the existing structures of power have been seized by cynical operators that use said structures for their personal benefit. Incumbents enjoy the privileges of power as long as they don't rock the boat. Challengers may ascend to power, but are quickly molded into conformity.

This is the basic tragedy of the show. "What works" will always lose out to "what works for me" because the structure rewards that kind of thinking. That reward is so compelling because the basic truth about American economic life is that, with only a couple of bad decisions, almost anyone can find themselves facing precarity.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 3:55 PM on November 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


DirtyOldTown: "I don't even know how you argue with this view of the world with logic and facts, because people don't give a shit."

I say to these people (many of whom were my students), "Are you interested in making a moral point about crime or are you interested in reducing crime?"

A lot of them eventually admit, "I want to make a moral point about crime because [this crime] is to terrible for mercy and deserves punishment," but a lot of them think about it and say, "No, wait, I think I'd rather reduce crime."

I used the same technique with abortion, poverty, etc. When you directly ask people if they're interested in moral condemnation or in reducing the particular evil, they at least clarify their thinking, and a heartening number of them come down on the side of reducing the particular evil.

clockzero: "whose stated goals entailed inculcating a weird sort of cultural and social change rather than improving outcomes or ensuring justice. To wit, the very first sentences of that act: The Congress makes the following findings: (1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society, (2) Marriage is an essential institution of a successful
society which promotes the interests of children. (3) Promotion of responsible fatherhood and motherhood is integral to successful child rearing and the well-being of children
"

Yeah, this is basically Locke. It's still a strange preamble to a law, and it's still marshalling the arguments to go in a racist direction, but it isn't culturally weird; it's culturally foundational.

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:09 PM on November 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yeah, this is basically Locke. It's still a strange preamble to a law, and it's still marshalling the arguments to go in a racist direction, but it isn't culturally weird; it's culturally foundational.

By itself, this position about the importance of marriage is probably not all that different than what a lot of people think, so in that sense it's culturally normal. The point, I would say, is that within the context of welfare legislation and institutional intervention into poverty, this emphasis on promoting marriage and promulgating a normative vision of family life is weird because it has no obvious relationship with reducing poverty, but it has all the hallmarks of the age-old White project to habilitate Blacks into proper society and of an analogous project undertaken by the wealthy to reform the thin moral character of the poor, both of which I would like to point out are also culturally foundational at this point. Welfare (in a universal sense) does not exist to correct moral deficiencies or abnormalities, it exists nominally to reduce, alleviate, and ultimately eliminate poverty. If it is used to effect other ends, it's worth understanding what those other ends are, because the moral authority of ameliorating the unnecessary suffering of the poor is great, and other ends with not-great moral authority should not arrogate it to themselves.

My argument was that politicians create legislation like this because voters want to believe that policy interventions can correct the perceived moral deficiencies of, e.g., poor and Black people, because they also believe more fundamentally that structural issues like poverty are really the result of moral failings on the individual level. In writing and enacting legislation like this, the political elite reproduce and perpetuate the cultural meaning structures (e.g., that Black people need to be morally reformed) that emerged originally as a way for Whites to explain to themselves why they were morally good despite the way they treated non-Whites. It's atavistic and arbitrary and is only tenuously connected to the true goal of improving the lives of the poor, and most importantly, the law in question is ostensibly poverty alleviation while the very first words of it allude to goals which are explicitly normative and cultural. Usually American voters dislike the idea of the government running their lives, but a lot of White voters love the idea of running Black people's lives through the machinery of government.

In short, the quoted section is culturally weird because it deliberately conflates moral/cultural change with the actual purpose of welfare, further perpetuating the indifference to what works in terms of improving outcomes and making peoples' lives better in favor of using the hegemony and power of government to control people to no rational end.
posted by clockzero at 6:30 PM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've been reading my kid L. Frank Baum's Oz books for the last few months. We're on The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Here is a bit from a chapter we read tonight:
"We consider a prisoner unfortunate. He is unfortunate in two ways—because he has done something wrong and because he is deprived of his liberty. Therefore we should treat him kindly, because of his misfortune, for otherwise he would become hard and bitter and would not be sorry he had done wrong."
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:38 PM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


DirtyOldTown, that's exactly the sentiment of some in Norway:
"The biggest mistake that our societies have made is to believe that you must punish hard to change criminals," explained Oeyvind Alnaes, Bastoey's then-prison governor. "This is wrong. The big closed prisons are criminal schools. If you treat people badly, they will behave badly. Anyone can be a citizen if we treat them well, respect them, and give them challenges and demands."
That article goes on to note that "[a]ll inmates start their sentence in a traditional, closed prison. These more secure facilities share some of the ills their American counterparts are known for, including high drug abuse, lack of education and job opportunities," but "Official policy suggests that inmates finish their sentence in an open prison ... to ease their reintegration into society."
posted by filthy light thief at 7:21 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I find it interesting that the parts of the US where Lutheran settlers were hugely important (the whole northern tier of states from Wisconsin west) has evolved relatively progressive and rehabilitative justice systems compared to the rest of the US. There is a very deep cultural thread of suppressing the vindictive instinct in favor of building a fair and just society. Or maybe it has something to do with the cold.
posted by miyabo at 8:25 PM on November 3, 2013


Some days I read articles like this, and I have hope for the future.

The rest of the time I read about American corporate prisons and know we're on a fast track to hell.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:45 PM on November 3, 2013


I am increasingly of the opinion that the central problem is that the American people do not care what works. They care which "solutions" feel morally sound when summed up in a dozen words or less. And they hate the idea that someone, somewhere might get some benefit they do not deserve.

You can probably substitute “British” or “Australian” for “American” and that sentence will work just as accurately. Not sure whether it holds for the rest of the English-speaking nations (any Canadians or Kiwis care to comment?), or what the cause is (culturally transmitted attitudes from mediæval England? The influence of US pop culture, and the punitive South within the US? Some Sapir-Whorfian property of the English language? The influence of Rupert Murdoch?)
posted by acb at 2:09 AM on November 4, 2013


The fundamental lesson of The Wire, for me, is that the tops of the existing structures of power have been seized by cynical operators that use said structures for their personal benefit. Incumbents enjoy the privileges of power as long as they don't rock the boat. Challengers may ascend to power, but are quickly molded into conformity.

"have been seized by"?

Try "were designed specifically to remain always controlled by".

I am increasingly of the opinion that the central problem is that the American people do not care what works. They care which "solutions" feel morally sound when summed up in a dozen words or less. And they hate the idea that someone, somewhere might get some benefit they do not deserve.

You can probably substitute “British” or “Australian” for “American” and that sentence will work just as accurately.


Speaking as an Australian: not quite. We did, after all, vote in a tax-funded single-payer universal healthcare scheme that still enjoys enough popular support that no Government would dare be seen to be trying to dismantle it.

There is, however, a substantial fraction of the Australian populace who truly believe that Alan Jones is a "straight talker" rather than a totally unscrupulous self-serving bullshit artist and to those people it applies perfectly. This is the same segment that both our major political parties have designed their appalling refugee policies to pander to.
posted by flabdablet at 6:52 AM on November 4, 2013


I think one thing that should be considered when comparing Scandinavian prisons to those in some other developed Western countries is the income gap and quality of life for the working classes in Scandinavian countries vs. the others.

It seems to me that in Norway, for example, you're less likely to have a situation where a law-abiding, working-poor person can look at a prison and feel resentment that a prisoner might receive relief from suffering and access to opportunities to start a new, better life when he, himself, lacks those things. And the people who have the power and the money and the incentive to keep things the way they are play on those feelings. So, it becomes difficult to reform prisons without reforming the context of the society in which prisons exist.

(In the U.S., of course, we can't even have a conversation about, "Wouldn't it benefit all of society, including the rich, and reduce crime in the first place, if we reformed the institutions of society to raise the standard of living for the poorest among us?" Because Socialism Bad.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:59 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I see no correlation. Please cite contrary evidence.

If you think correlation between food stamp spending and GDP growth rates is in any way the proper methodology to determine the economic effects of food stamps, then you're not going to be convinced of anything you don't want to be convinced of.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:52 AM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I hear they are pretty nice. And me with a job and an apartment, like a sucker.
posted by thelonius at 4:32 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


They care which "solutions" feel morally sound when summed up in a dozen words or less.

i keep referring to malcolm gladwell's million-dollar murray:
That is what is so perplexing about power-law homeless policy. From an economic perspective the approach makes perfect sense. But from a moral perspective it doesn’t seem fair. Thousands of people in the Denver area no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand—and no one offers them the key to a new apartment. Yet that’s just what the guy screaming obscenities and swigging Dr. Tich gets. When the welfare mom’s time on public assistance runs out, we cut her off. Yet when the homeless man trashes his apartment we give him another. Social benefits are supposed to have some kind of moral justification. We give them to widows and disabled veterans and poor mothers with small children. Giving the homeless guy passed out on the sidewalk an apartment has a different rationale. It’s simply about efficiency.

We also believe that the distribution of social benefits should not be arbitrary. We don’t give only to some poor mothers, or to a random handful of disabled veterans. We give to everyone who meets a formal criterion, and the moral credibility of government assistance derives, in part, from this universality. But the Denver homelessness program doesn’t help every chronically homeless person in Denver. There is a waiting list of six hundred for the supportive-housing program; it will be years before all those people get apartments, and some may never get one. There isn’t enough money to go around, and to try to help everyone a little bit—to observe the principle of universality—isn’t as cost-effective as helping a few people a lot. Being fair, in this case, means providing shelters and soup kitchens, and shelters and soup kitchens don’t solve the problem of homelessness. Our usual moral intuitions are little use, then, when it comes to a few hard cases. Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice. We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.
it appears this 'phenomenon' has recently struck again in CO on amendment 66:
BRUNDIN: Here's how Colorado's Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper puts it.

HICKENLOOPER: This is delivering what Secretary Arne Duncan, the secretary of Education, said is the most comprehensive set of reforms in the history of the United States, right? This is going to set Colorado as the national model in public education.

BRUNDIN: Amendment 66 is predicated on the belief that a child's zip code shouldn't determine the quality of his or her education. It targets money at the kids who need it. Hickenlooper explains that high-poverty districts like Denver would get up to 40 percent more money per at-risk student because they're costlier to educate.

HICKENLOOPER: And that money follows the kid. For the first time in the United States, if a kid drops out, the school stops receiving money from the district at that moment.

BRUNDIN: A big incentive, the governor says, for schools to keep students from dropping out. The driving force behind the measure is a young Democratic senator from Denver, Mike Johnston. He says districts with low property tax bases would get more state funding.
gladwell should make up a neologism for this so that it sticks in the public imagination...
posted by kliuless at 11:42 AM on November 10, 2013


Sweden closes four prisons as number of inmates plummets
posted by Harald74 at 5:31 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


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