we don't think that treating them hard will make them a better man
May 19, 2012 4:39 AM   Subscribe

Yeah, I thought it was funny he said he'd boast about it. The guy is probably giving a very carefully measured statement to the journalist, though, perhaps looking forwards to his parole hearings. If that's how things work there.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 5:12 AM on May 19, 2012

"...a couple of hours after lunch the guards on Unit A... bring inmates a tall stack of steaming, heart-shaped waffles and pots of jam, which they set down on a checked tablecloth and eat together, whiling away the afternoon."

The way the piece opens it sounded like the Mayberry jail upgraded to a prison, but still run by Andy Taylor with the help of Aunt Bee.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 5:12 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

This article really highlights the disparity between the two main schools of penal-system philosophy. What's the purpose of incarcerating people who willfully disregard the law of the land? Rehabilitation or exacting vengeance?
Unfortunately, in most of the U.S. and particularly here in Texas, the answer is a uniform and resounding cry for blood.
Perhaps one day our society will progress towards an understanding that spending more money rehabilitating those convicted of crimes and expending more compassion on same will yield a more stable and just society for everyone.

Of course, some people would say I'd feel differently if my wife or daughter were murdered. But I would be wrong if I were blinded by non-rational, visceral emotions. And that is not how policy should be decided.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 5:20 AM on May 19, 2012 [29 favorites]

I dig the (Banksy-esque?) silhouette on the supermarket door.
posted by ian1977 at 5:21 AM on May 19, 2012

That being said, this particular prison does sound inviting enough to me that I'd gladly smuggle a kilo of hash into Norway if it meant I could stay there a while and eat waffles in the woods.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 5:22 AM on May 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

A fellow inmate, Patrick, serving a 12-year sentence for drug smuggling, was one of two prisoners who organised a prison-wide collection to buy flowers for the victims of Breivik's attack. Everyone gave up their daily wage of 53 kroner (£5.60); even the prime minister was moved by the gesture. "It was horrible, the thing that happened, and we felt helpless," Patrick says. "We wanted to do something. I was surprised that it got so much media attention; I was surprised that people thought, 'You're prisoners, but you are so nice.' We are also human beings. We also have daughters, sisters, children."
^^ There's something that wouldn't happen in an American prison.
posted by hypotheticole at 5:23 AM on May 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

It seems to me that the disparity between rich & poor in the world is mirrored in the disparity of treatment meted out to prisoners. I mean, in say Texas, where life can be very tough for the common man, the common man doesnt want the criminal locked up ijn a holiday camp, his rights respected and his table groaning with food.
But maybe in Norway, where standards of living rise ever upwards, the common man doesnt need to feel vengeful: what good does it do to hurt a criminal, if it doesnt serve to distract from my nasty, brutish & short lovely, comfortable & long life?
posted by dash_slot- at 5:29 AM on May 19, 2012 [51 favorites]

I think dash slot- hit the nail on the head.
posted by ian1977 at 5:30 AM on May 19, 2012

Incredible. I expect they do their tattoos in Helvetica Neue.
posted by colie at 5:33 AM on May 19, 2012 [15 favorites]

I couldn't read this without being extremely jealous and just plain sad for how our American prisons are in comparison. I can't even envision a road map in which this kind of attempt at rehabilitation would even be possible in the US. Maybe since our prisons are for profit corps there could be a for profit prison modeled after Norway's... but even then the public/justice system would never let it happen.
posted by pwally at 5:34 AM on May 19, 2012

There's a really interesting book comparing the American and Western European prison systems called Harsh Justice. The basis thesis is that in the Europe the class hierarchy meant that there was a tradition of milder punishments for higher status prisoners like the fortress prisons where high class prisoners were confined, but not really punished. When Europeans began eliminating formal differences in how prisoners were treated, they effectively leveled up, bringing the lower status prisoners the treatment previously extended only to higher status prisoners. In America, where we more consciously rejected that kind of differentiated treatment from an earlier date, we leveled down, treating everyone badly.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:34 AM on May 19, 2012 [12 favorites]

Here is an article from BBC about a different Norwegian prison called Bastoey, on an island. What I found interesting was that the re-offender rate for this prison was 16%, which is the lowest in Europe. I wonder what it is for Halden.
posted by hariya at 5:34 AM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

dash slot,
Yeah, certainly we shouldn't make prisons into luxury resorts; if people are clamoring to get in then there would be no deterrent effect (if that's even a really measurable factor) against committing crimes.
But we do have a long way to go in changing our attitudes towards those convicted of crimes and how to deal with them, and I think Norway is on the right track.
Unless the veracity of this article and other stories like it are in question, and I've been duped by some shadowy cabal of prisoner's rights lobbies. I'm always willing to reverse my opinions.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 5:40 AM on May 19, 2012

ian1977 - It's by Dolk - he has done a lot of work here in Bergen, and their easily mistaken for Banksy's work.

dash_slot has it just about right. You also have to remember that people on welfare here are still expected to take a few weeks holiday to get some sun. Imagine the uproar in Texas if people on welfare were going to Cancun every year...
posted by grajohnt at 5:43 AM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

(I am now cringing in horror at the non-editable their/they're mistake - sorry!)
posted by grajohnt at 5:44 AM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

If what we want of our penal system is vengeance, prison is a really stupid way to go about it. We should do it Scarlet Letter style, like with a tattoo for instance. Even housing people in shitty conditions is pretty expensive if you want to keep them alive, right?

If we want to have our revenge and then not feel guilty about it, on the other hand--well, what we have now is an "out of sight, out of mind" sort of approach, where we are satisfied that our prisoners feel terrible, but not being abused so much because we don't have to actually look at them. It's a shaky bargain because every now and again some stories of the reality behind bars break out.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:49 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

It was also kind of remarkable that the warden or governor or whatever the title is said that he didn't like to encourage weight-training because it is something he associates with aggression and violence.
We have a very different outlook on that issue here in the States. Most people see it as a positive, constructive activity.
But really, if there is a subset of society that we don't need growing to enormous proportions, it would be the criminals. I'd say if they want to partake in physical activities, let them play badminton. It doesn't bulk you up and it leaves you with a vaguely emasculated feeling. No one robs a bank after badminton.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 5:49 AM on May 19, 2012 [14 favorites]

The segment Michael Moore filmed for Sicko, and then left out of the movie because he didn't think anyone would believe it, was amazing.
posted by localroger at 5:54 AM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

It seems to me that the disparity between rich & poor in the world is mirrored in the disparity of treatment meted out to prisoners. I mean, in say Texas, where life can be very tough for the common man, the common man doesn't want the criminal locked up ijn a holiday camp
Well, I would guess that in most poor countries, you simply don't have the resources to have nice jails. China, for example, could probably not do something like this.

But given the massively disproportionate incarceration rate in the U.S, we probably have less resources per prisoner then, say India. Looking at this list of incarceration rates, we should have about 2,274,000 prisoners, to India's 351,000.

If you divide the GDP by the number of prisoners, the U.S. has one prisoner for every $6.4 million dollars of GDP, whereas India has one prisoner for every $41 million dollars of GDP.

Norway has a GDP $412.99 billion, an incarceration rate of 73/100,000 (almost exactly 1/10th the US rate) and a population of 4,885,240. That means only about 3,500 prisoners in the entire country - and I guess one prisoner per for every $118 million of GDP.

So basically they can afford to spend a lot more per prisoner, and in fact the U.S is actually more resource constrained per prisoner then some developing nations.

(The US, it should be noted, has about one quarter of the entire world's prison population)
posted by delmoi at 5:54 AM on May 19, 2012 [12 favorites]

My favorite Norway crime story was I was going to a club with a bunch of my friends and coworkers and one of them turned to warn me that it was a really bad neighborhood. "Oh, yeah, it's terrible. A guy got stabbed there." "*A* guy?" "Yeah, it was all over the news." "How long ago was this?" "Oh, like three years ago, it was really scary."

This caused me considerable amusement because I'd been living in Durham, NC and am originally from New Orleans, where the crime rate is considerably higher.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 5:57 AM on May 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

we do have a long way to go in changing our attitudes towards those convicted of crimes and how to deal with them

Here in North Carolina, a few geniuses at the state legislature want to ban cable TV from death row, after a mentally ill inmate sent off a deluded tauting letter to his local paper about how great his life is in prison. The inmate's son pointed out that his dad actually talked repeatedly about how much he hated his life in prison, but that isn't stopping the genius brigade.
posted by mediareport at 6:01 AM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

The segment Michael Moore filmed for Sicko, and then left out of the movie because he didn't think anyone would believe it, was amazing.

I've been thinking about that segment for years and hit COMMENT just to link to it.
posted by gerryblog at 6:13 AM on May 19, 2012 [18 favorites]

No trampoline room? That's inhumane!
posted by blue_beetle at 6:14 AM on May 19, 2012

Having spent some time in prison, I can tell you that you can make that room as nice as you want and, so long as the door is locked, it's still a very effective punishment. It makes me extremely happy to see humane and human prisons and I really wish it were politically possible to push for that sort of reform this side of the Atlantic.
posted by 256 at 6:18 AM on May 19, 2012 [24 favorites]

but that isn't stopping the genius brigade.

Well, the AM radio 'personalities' have been yowling about the idea that prisons have become too cush for a long time now (or had been at some point years ago when I was exposed to them), and thus there are thousands of dittoheads out there who comprise a considerable voting bloc. The legislators know this well and consequently they cynically cater to the most atavistic instincts for revenge among their constituents by acting 'tough on crime'.
'Tough on crime', of course, is just code in the world of politics for 'will not grant clemency to mentally retarded people', or 'wants to ban cable TV from death row'.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 6:20 AM on May 19, 2012

The fundamental problem is articulated by Bastoey prison's warden:

"If this were a holiday camp for criminals, what's the problem if I can show you the result?" he asks.

The US has basically decided that it's more important to make prison an endurance test of suffering than it is to rehabilitate or treat prisoners. In return, the US has a re-offending rate of 52%, compared to Bastoey's 16%. Win!

Having said that, I am indeed American and the lust for vengeance runs deep with me. I am inclined to want the perpetrator of a violent crime to suffer every minute of every day. It takes more thought and less or a priority on short-term gratification to think it through and realise that what's really most important is that the prisoner not do the same thing to someone else when released. Look at the repeated emphasis that Norwegian prisoners will be someone's neighbour on release, vs the US emphasis on continuing to bar ex-cons from integrating back into society.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:26 AM on May 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

I've heard rumors that in the US, incarcerated millionaires can somehow make arrangements to stay in a Club Fed instead of the brutal cell blocks where black drug dealers get sent. I wonder how those conditions compare to Halden?
posted by ceribus peribus at 6:32 AM on May 19, 2012

DarlingBri, good point.
And the recidivism rate is what seems to be the most compelling statistic. If you look at the rehabilitative effort as a means of helping the reintegration of the prisoners back into society and ensuring that they will not pursue the same avenues of delinquency that led them to be incarcerated in the first place, then it is a good investment.
Otherwise, we can just stuff 'em in a crowded cage full of other hardened criminals, let em eat starches, lift weights, and learn how to give a tattoo with a Bic, and then watch expectantly as they get paroled and reoffend.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 6:36 AM on May 19, 2012

The corollary of what I was saying up thread is that if we reduce the inequalities in wealth distribution in our society, there would be less need for brutal prison regimes, because there would be less of a public pressure to have them.

And, in my mind, less crime. Until you begin to approach the likely minimal amount of offending a material culture generates.

IOW, the Norsemen are on the right track, we Anglo-Saxons have it quite wrong.
posted by dash_slot- at 6:40 AM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

From the BBC Bastoey article:

"Fundamentally, we believe you have to start with prisoner rehabilitation on day one," Ms Bergersen. "Everybody knows that when you are released in Norway you can be somebody's neighbour."

Emphasis mine. That sentence really catches the central error of how we in the US are operating our penal system. It would be one thing to have such a brutal system if the people sent there were like the prisoners sent to Australia -- people permanently separated from this society, never to return. But other than the small population of actual lifers, they will all be back in the community sooner or later; wouldn't it be better if the person sitting next to you on the bus or waiting in line with you at the DMV hadn't been brutalized and taught skills of violence?
posted by Forktine at 6:45 AM on May 19, 2012 [13 favorites]

How outraged has the Daily Mail been about this?
posted by JHarris at 6:48 AM on May 19, 2012

... like the prisoners sent to Australia -- people permanently separated from this society, never to return.

*wistfully shuffles leg irons*
posted by Ritchie at 7:02 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

*wistfully shuffles leg irons*

I have never been to Australia but I imagined by now most of you had shed your leg irons.

But I also imagined you rode kangaroos to barbies on top of Ayers Rock and used koalas as change purses, so my imagination is a bit unreliable at times.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 7:14 AM on May 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

they will all be back in the community sooner or later; wouldn't it be better if the person sitting next to you on the bus or waiting in line with you at the DMV hadn't been brutalized and taught skills of violence?

Instead of penal colonies we have abandoned urban and rural zones. We get to blame people who live in criminal dumping grounds for turning to crime by throwing them in prison and then dumping them back in their neighborhoods. Then politicians and police chiefs who are too afraid to drive through those neighborhoods get to blame them for not pulling up their bootstraps, so they announce a zero tolerance policy so they can check the tough on crime box for their campaigns so they can receive massive donations from correctional unions and paranoid rich people.

Now, it turns out that it is insanely expensive to jail everyone, including the mentally ill, but it's a lot easier to argue for primitive ethics than it is for sensible policy. I'm fairly convinced that America's short attention span for politics leads to these kinds of conclusions, because it's a lot easier to say "Criminals shouldn't walk free!" than it is to walk through the lifecycle of violence and incarceration that our society has created for the poor, much less invest money in correcting the problem that will be labeled as a reward for criminals.

dash_slot- also makes a very good point that it's easier to call for blood in societies mired in violence and relative poverty in the first place. If you're pissed off, broke, over-worked, and stressed out, it's a lot easier to arrive at the "eff that guy" attitude.
posted by deanklear at 7:53 AM on May 19, 2012 [11 favorites]

I was going to say something very similar to what deanklear said above.

Also please note- this environment is approximately 10,000 times nicer and more civilized than the one in which I work- a public school in NYC. (We have all the yelling, metal detectors, guards in uniform and the bars on the windows (well, crosshatched metal, but it's the same in the end).)

I envy working in that environment- how sad is that!?
posted by bquarters at 8:06 AM on May 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

The American prison system is the perverse intertwining of the profit motive and inherent cultural sadism.
posted by The Whelk at 8:21 AM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I feel the same way about movies.
posted by clavdivs at 8:32 AM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

You must get really torn up watching "the shawshank redemption", then. its just a nexus of social ills and a morgan freeman voiceover narration.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 8:36 AM on May 19, 2012

I love Morgan Freeman in the thespian manner. Now, kindly, go pound sand.
posted by clavdivs at 8:59 AM on May 19, 2012

Norway has a much smaller population than the UK or the US, and I remember reading when the Breivik massacre happened that "almost everyone was connected to the victims in some way" (paraphrased). If you're more likely to run into the prisoner again, it behooves you to treat them humanely. In the US and the UK, prisoners are anonymous cattle; most middle- and upper- class people will never run across them. It's easier to treat someone badly when you don't know or care who they are, and don't know anyone who has a connection to them.
posted by desjardins at 8:59 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I should commit a crime in Norway instead of renewing my lease
posted by knoyers at 9:08 AM on May 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

knoyers, I fleetingly had that exact thought as I was reading the article.
But I could only bring myself to perpetrate a victimless crime, like stealing sunflower seeds from a gas station, or public urination while jaywalking.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 9:29 AM on May 19, 2012

. . . I wonder if it's a good idea to teach inmates how to scale rock faces, but he responds with hurt amazement. "There would be no security risk. I wouldn't be teaching them how to escape."

Norway is adorable. I have to visit.

Slight snark aside, I was really touched by this. You couldn't get the likes of it built for Cambridge, MA, or Arcata, CA, or anywhere else that the US considers fuzzy-minded. We come from bloody heritage, and I've had to make peace with that personally, and accept that, for better or for worse, we will never be a people who can behave as well as Europeans. I've always wondered how it is, though, that the Scandinavians don't have the same inclination towards military and political insanity as we do, when they came from a heritage that made their neighbors pray, "From the fury of the Northmen, good God, deliver us!"
posted by Countess Elena at 9:29 AM on May 19, 2012

Its pretty incredible how much a cultural milieu can change over the course of even a couple of generations.
Its true, the Norwegians were terrifying pillage-and-burn enthusiasts not so long ago, and now they're just a clan of 5 million literate, willowy, blonde teddy bears.
Let's hope that American culture can go through a similar alteration after the imminent nuclear/zombie/immigrant/pedophile apocalypse demolishes the underpinnings of our society and the equine ascendancy renders us mute and supine.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 9:40 AM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

if people are clamoring to get in then there would be no deterrent effect (if that's even a really measurable factor) against committing crimes.

If the only reason people in a society don't commit more crimes is because they are afraid of getting in trouble, that society is on the brink of failure, because eventually they will get tired of being afraid and they will start hitting back.
posted by curious nu at 9:46 AM on May 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

The US penal system (and increasingly, the Canadian one, too) isn't interested in anything but punishment and the demonstration of state power. And like all bad public policy, it wins votes today. But what of the long-term ramification of recidivism? Well that's somebody else's problem.
posted by runningdogofcapitalism at 9:55 AM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

If the only reason people in a society don't commit more crimes is because they are afraid of getting in trouble, that society is on the brink of failure

Yeah, I wasn't suggesting that the 'deterrent effect' was the only thing restraining our society from outright anarchy. Just acknowledging that it is one of the (perhaps feeble) arguments that people use to support the existence of penal institutions, and the persistence of less-than 4 star accommodations therein.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 10:06 AM on May 19, 2012

this is a welcome step forward for our species.
posted by spacediver at 10:40 AM on May 19, 2012

We come from bloody heritage, and I've had to make peace with that personally, and accept that, for better or for worse, we will never be a people who can behave as well as Europeans.

This statement bothers me for a couple of reasons. First, well, the twentieth century in Europe was not exactly "well-behaved." But more importantly, it presupposes that American attitudes toward incarceration are immutable. But they clearly aren't--see figure 3 in this PDF. Something changed starting in the '70s and really accelerating in the '80s and '90s to make this happen.

It seems like all the time at Metafilter, the blame for America's incarceration problems is laid down on two boogeymen, the drug war and privately-owned prisons. Now, personally, I oppose both of them, and certainly they are responsible for a good bit of the problem. But it's important to keep them in perspective--the CEPR study linked above says that "about one-fourth" of prisoners are there for non-violent drug offenses. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that about 128,000 people are in privately-operated prisons, or about 41 per 100,000 population. So, even if you take two incredibly optimistic assumptions--that each privately-owned prison inmate would be free if they were abolished, and every drug prisoner (even, say, people who deal heroin to teenagers) were relased overnight--the US incarceration rate would fall to ~(.75*753) - 41 or 524. This is still the highest in the developed world--by an incredible margin!. The problem must surely run deeper.

I mean, take a look at any number of threads right here on people who committed unquestionably immoral acts, like for example Dharun Ravi, who faces 10 years in prison for bias intimidation (which, granted, he probably won't get), and you'll see plenty of people who think at least this possibility is reasonable. As near as I can tell, that same 10 years is the maximum sentence in Norway for rape (see section 192, although note the punishment could be greater for certain aggravated rapes).

Now, I am pointing toward the incarceration rates, and one could rebut by saying that you could have US-style incarceration rates with Norway-style prisons. This is technically true, I grant. But I think delmoi's point should be expanded--we in the US spend a great deal more incarcerating our prisoners, because we have so many of them, and in the real world, government budgets are limited. Now, my understanding is that the general sense of criminologists is that the US increase in incarceration is responsible for maybe a quarter of the nationwide crime decline seen in the last couple of decades, so there is a tradeoff. I think this is worth making, even though as a young male I'm in the group by far most likely to be murdered. But I don't think we should run away from the issue--US prison conditions are deplorable in large part because they are absolutely stuffed, and they are absolutely stuffed largely because of incredibly lengthy sentences for behavior that is unequivocally criminal.
posted by dsfan at 10:54 AM on May 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

Something changed starting in the '70s and really accelerating in the '80s and '90s to make this happen.

Death Wish (1974)
Death Wish 2 (1982)
Death Wish 3 (1985)
Death Wish 4 (1987)
Death Wish 5 (1994)

And of course the Harry Callahan series:
Dirty Harry (1971)
Magnum Force (1973)
Sudden Impact (1983)
etc etc etc

Did art reflect the reality that crime was rising and that more harshly punitive measures were needed to combat the onslaught of thugs on our streets? Did reality reflect an image of a culture lusting for blood and vengeance and reveling in fantasies of gunplay and bravado?
Or was Charles Bronson just so charming that we couldn't say no to him everytime he dreamed a little dream of death at the multiplex?
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 11:15 AM on May 19, 2012

I would like to see a study of the effects on inmates' families--especially their children--compared to the families of inmates in less human institutions. I rather suspect we'd see some kind of significantly lower behavioral issues and likelihood that the child will follow the steps of the incarcerated parent. Being humane isn't just morally right, it might be cheaper when you look at the social services needed to support the children of the incarcerated with therapy, academic support, and possible future court costs. I'd like to see the data.
posted by smirkette at 11:19 AM on May 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

There did seem to be some correlation with that graph and the incidence of violent, lawman-lionizing films that depict lawbreakers in an entirely unsympathetic light. Perhaps people started losing their compassion for the accused after they had it bludgeoned out of them by a metric fuckton of movies and teevee shows.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 11:19 AM on May 19, 2012

The conclusion reached in the US has been that we haven't been harsh, punitive, and retaliatory enough on lawbreakers if they commit another crime after release. Sad and wrong.
posted by Daddy-O at 11:36 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wonder how they deal with inmates refusing to cooperate and seeking to game the system - e.g. acting nice until they get to the good facilities, and then just making life miserable for the staff and other inmates. I'm guessing they shuffle them back to less progressive facilities - I doubt a system like that would be able to operate by just assuming everyone will be acting in good faith and on their best behavior.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:50 AM on May 19, 2012

Dr Dracator, Halden is their "bad" prison. They seem to operate under the assumption that if you treat a person with dignity, they will reciprocate. Sounds like a utopian fantasy here but it seems to work for them. Imagine that.
posted by localroger at 12:11 PM on May 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

I used to work with a girl who was in uni for criminal something-or-other. Whatever it was, she was going to be working within the criminal justice system here in Canada. One day she was telling me about how abusive and dysfunctional our prison system is and also, how ineffective it is in preventing crime.

"So what are you going to do about it?", I asked her.

"There's no way to fix it", she replied. "It's so bad, and there's nothing anyone can do
It's really really bad, and there's nothing that will fix it". She repeated variants of the same concept several more times. This is what she was being taught, and mindlessly, unquestioningly accepting, at a university level. That things are bad and there is no way to fix them. These are the people involved in the criminal system here.

I feel like there must be some fundamental difference in the way that we're systematically trained to think about these issues which is a much larger problem than how humane our prisons are, or how policies change, or even than who is in charge of making those kind of decisions. That difference is what we need to identify and adopt.
posted by windykites at 1:52 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Personally, I think that the environment where a criminal's incarceration was spent is less important than it has been made to be in most conversations. Sure, it can make a tremendous difference, but it doesn't disambiguate other more fundamental issues.

This system has identified a major issue; when the prisoner has served their term and is released to society.

Are they, the former prisoners, prepared to be re-integrated into society? Norway has a relatively stable society with great social services support. Prisoners are kept in contact with their families. Prisoners aren't pariahs when they re-enter society (really? I'd love to hear recounts about Norweigian employers hiring ex-cons and the ex-cons' job performances).

In the US, criminals are from ... criminal backgrounds. Crime spawns crime and for a lot of people doing shady things and the possibility of getting caught are simply a fact of life. Poor people are heavily discriminated against, and the poor are in socio-economic-culturally conditioned to reject working with a/the dominant stable facet of society. Further social dislocation and even resentment against "being a 'good' member of 'society.'"

I hate effective result of the US legal system, but there's a lot more going on. Importing the Danish/Norweigian system wholesale simply won't work in the US. There are too many different social norms; the USian prisoners are very different than their prisoners. Different problems require different solutions.

If there is a solution to the US penal system, I'm afraid that it's going to be a side-effect of something else 50-100 years in the future. There are currently no high-profile policies to try to change the environment of US penetentiaries and even less on evening out the economic imbalances among the law-abiding. Throw in the situation of Middle-/South-American immigration and it's a situation that I do not envy to have to deal with.

Arguing these practices and American penitentiary practices is like arguing (perfect) Japanese Black Watermelons and post-wormy GM apples that are flooding WalMart. Different market, very different agricultural backgrounds.
posted by porpoise at 7:06 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

"There's no way to fix it", she replied. "It's so bad, and there's nothing anyone can do
It's really really bad, and there's nothing that will fix it".

This kind of defeatism is getting more and more common. What ever happened to that national will that put men on the moon? Oh that's right, it's haaard.

But many hard problems are in fact easy, if you aren't making them hard. If a problem seems unsolvable, it is possible that it's only unsolvable the way you're looking at it. A good sign that you have an unquestioned assumption that needs questioning is that a problem seems intractable and impossible to solve. This is doubly true of sociological problems, which are ultimately of our own making.

People here are coming forth with their own theories as to the underlying Real Reason that our prisons are so bad. So, here is mine: it, like so many other things, is a symptom of our toxic political culture. It is a political football among far too many candidates to appear "tough of crime," to extend sentences, to makes things worse for the bad people, and point to whatever Willie Hortons a candidate might have as supposed secret evidence they are some kind of commie inmate coddler.
posted by JHarris at 8:55 PM on May 19, 2012

Great and fascinating article. I was disappointed that the pictures link didn't include a photo of a cell interior though.
posted by Joh at 9:37 PM on May 19, 2012

There are very few things that in which Louisiana is clearly the world leader but in incarcerating its citizens Louisiana leads the world. New Orleans is at the head of the pack in this worst of all states. The voices crying in this wilderness (Sr. Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking comes to mind) are beginning to sense a slight stir of interest in reducing the appalling rate of incarceration here.

Still, we are so far from imagining even a prison where brutality and prison rape are considered by commenters in the daily newspaper to be commonplace features of justice, not bugs at all, while the occasional murder simply bothers no one but the family of the unfortunate victim, who might have met his end simply because he was a bystander at the wrong place.

The distance this society would have to travel for a majority of its citizens to favor rehabilitation over punishment of offenders seems an impossible journey for a society to make in fewer than several hundred years. This high security prison that exists in Norway has brought tears to my eyes all day today for the 5000 black men of New Orleans who are incarcerated today and for their families. I can't even imagine how the average child in this city could comprehend what that place is. Or how anyone can know about this and still claim that our country is the best place in the world by every measure.
posted by Anitanola at 11:12 PM on May 19, 2012

". . . where brutality and prison rape are NOT considered by commenters . . . " (sorry about that)
posted by Anitanola at 11:16 PM on May 19, 2012

Joh, picture 3 in this series shows a cell interior.
posted by Harald74 at 12:54 AM on May 20, 2012

Here's my older FPP on Norway's prisons.
posted by Harald74 at 12:55 AM on May 20, 2012

They seem to operate under the assumption that if you treat a person with dignity, they will reciprocate. Sounds like a utopian fantasy here but it seems to work for them.

Well, if they have managed to solve the problem of a tiny fraction of your population behaving like predatory assholes no matter what, humane imprisonment should be a trivial extension.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:44 AM on May 20, 2012

Dr Dracator, the operative word here is tiny. We (I'm Norwegian) can't really let them dictate treatment of the majority.

It seems like the solution we have recently tried for this problem is directed policing towards those same individuals. The Oslo police have VIP treatment for repeat offenders. They have noticed that something like 10% of criminals generate 50% of the crime or something to that effect (I pulled those numbers of of thin air, BTW). So those criminals are followed closely, and fast-tracked through the judicial system when caught.

We've had a bit of trouble with eastern European career criminals having B&E raids in my area, and the solution was again directed policing. Fast-track prosecuting, and a quick return to their home countries has made an impact on the statistics.
posted by Harald74 at 2:58 AM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the link Harald74!
posted by Joh at 10:14 PM on May 20, 2012

"Is this really a prison?" he asked, when she had finished reading.

"Indeed it is," she replied. "It is the only prison in the Land of Oz."

"And am I a prisoner?"

"Bless the child! Of course."

"Then why is the prison so fine, and why are you so kind to me?" he earnestly asked.

Tollydiggle seemed surprised by the question, but she presently answered:

"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. Ozma thinks that one who has committed a fault did so because he was not strong and brave; therefore she puts him in prison to make him strong and brave. When that is accomplished he is no longer a prisoner, but a good and loyal citizen and everyone is glad that he is now strong enough to resist doing wrong. You see, it is kindness that makes one strong and brave; and so we are kind to our prisoners."

Ojo thought this over very carefully. "I had an idea," said he, "that prisoners were always treated harshly, to punish them."

"That would be dreadful!" cried Tollydiggle. "Isn't one punished enough in knowing he has done wrong? Don't you wish, Ojo, with all your heart, that you had not been disobedient and broken a Law of Oz?"

"I--I hate to be different from other people," he admitted.

(L Frank Baum, The Patchwork Girl of Oz)

Also: I heart Scandinavia.
posted by lollusc at 5:52 AM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Against Law, For Order: "It's taken decades and millions of lives, but elite opinion is starting to move against mass incarceration."

Rethinking the 'war on drugs': Insights from the US and Mexico
Illegal drugs are one of the planet's most pressing problems. They shatter hundreds of millions of lives and wreak untold social, economic and political damage in both consuming and producing nations. In this column, ex-President of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo introduces an eBook he edited on the issue that points very strongly in the direction of a serious reconsideration of drug policy.

Penn Jillette rages against Obama's drug policies
Do we believe, even for a second, that if Obama had been busted for marijuana -- under the laws that he condones -- would his life have been better? If Obama had been caught with the marijuana that he says he uses, and 'maybe a little blow'... if he had been busted under his laws, he would have done hard fucking time. And if he had done time in prison, time in federal prison, time for his 'weed' and 'a little blow,' he would not be President of the United States of America. He would not have gone to his fancy-ass college, he would not have sold books that sold millions and millions of copies and made millions and millions of dollars, he would not have a beautiful, smart wife, he would not have a great job. He would have been in fucking prison, and it's not a goddamn joke. People who smoke marijuana must be set free. It is insane to lock people up.
America has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prison inmates. Now its largest state is embarking on reform.

cf. James Q. Wilson's Legacy: Much to Answer For & Wall Street's Broken Windows

also btw re: rehab vs. retribution...
Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, tries new approach to school discipline — suspensions drop 85%
posted by kliuless at 10:02 PM on May 22, 2012

I hope people drop by the thread this late and read your links, kliuless.

BTW, I was blown away a couple of years ago when I watched a scene from a US high school on some series or other. The kids went through metal detectors, guarded by armed security. What got me was that no point was made of it; it is apparently normal! You probably have no idea how f-ed up that seems from my side of the pond!
posted by Harald74 at 4:52 AM on May 23, 2012

A Ticket For Good Behavior - "Greg McKeown relays a tale of Canadian Royal Mounties using positive incentives to deter crime."
[The Mounties'] approach was to try to catch youth doing the right things and give them a Positive Ticket. The ticket granted the recipient free entry to the movies or to a local youth center. They gave out an average of 40,000 tickets per year.

That is three times the number of negative tickets over the same period. As it turns out, and unbeknownst to [Mounty superintendant Ward] Clapham, that ratio (2.9 positive affects to 1 negative affect, to be precise) is called the Losada Line. It is the minimum ratio of positive to negatives that has to exist for a team to flourish. On higher-performing teams (and marriages for that matter) the ratio jumps to 5:1. But does it hold true in policing?

According to Clapham, youth recidivism was reduced from 60% to 8%. Overall crime was reduced by 40%. Youth crime was cut in half. And it cost one-tenth of the traditional judicial system.
posted by kliuless at 11:00 AM on June 14, 2012

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