Most countries’ prison systems are failures—the rate of recidivism is abysmal. In the US, 76.6 percent of prisoners end up back in prison within five years of their release. Does this mean criminal behavior is genetic and some folks are born criminals? No. Does it mean most criminals are incredibly sloppy and will inevitably get caught? No. Can this be fixed? Yes, it can. The fact that it can be fixed disproves the above.
Norway seems to have figured out a successful solution. Seventy-five out of 100,000 people there are incarcerated, compared to 707 out of 100,000 people in the US. The rate at which inmates end up back in prison after two years is 20 percent in Norway, versus that 76.6 percent in the US over a five-year period. So whatever they’re doing, it’s working.
One may claim this is all because Norway’s crime rate is lower, but part of the reason it’s lower is that they focus on genuine reform, not just punishment. Halden Prison, for example, has a relatively normal atmosphere—there are no bars on the windows, and the prisoners have full kitchens (knives included!), flat-screen TVs and lots of vocational training. Even a bike repair shop!
There’s also a recording studio.
This seventy-five-acre maximum-security prison is surrounded by blueberry woods and has been described as the “most humane” prison in the world. It is focused entirely on rehabilitation. The entire Norwegian prison system has emphasized job training, therapy and education since its corrections program was overhauled in 1998.
One reason it might be hard to sell this idea is that it costs more money to house an inmate in a prison like Halden—more than $93,000 a year, compared to the $31,286 spent annually, on average, in the US. But the resulting low recidivism rate means that if one takes the long view it actually saves money. The failure of the US prison system means that inmates will more likely return, and the damage and cost to society will be much greater than if they had been rehabilitated. It’s math, not bleeding heart liberalism.
Halden's director, Are Hoidel, says: “If we treat people like animals when they're in prison, they're likely to behave as animals. Here we treat them as human beings. [All] inmates in Norwegian prison are going back to the society. Do you want people who are angry—or people who are rehabilitated?”
This idea is manifesting elsewhere as well, though maybe not as broadly as in Norway. Max Kenner at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, began something nearly two decades ago called the Bard Prison Initiative. The idea is to provide classes that lead to actual college degrees in the humanities to inmates. It’s not a huge program—it only covers six New York State prisons and three hundred inmates—but when I asked why not scale up I was told they don’t have ambitions to expand their program, as its present size is as much as they can handle… They would rather other colleges and universities adopt the same system as a model. Which is what is happening: Wesleyan University, Grinnell College, and Goucher College have begun their own programs.
The success can be shown by the recidivism rate: 4 percent for inmates who participate in the program and a mere 2 percent for those who earn degrees in prison, compared with about 40 percent for the New York State prison system as a whole.
The Money Argument: It’s Cheaper to Reform and Educate Prisoners
Prison education programs are highly cost-effective according to a 2013 RAND Corporation study. Their study found that for every dollar spent on educating prisoners $4 to $5 dollars were saved long-term. Again, this is math and economics, not partisan politics.
There are other benefits as well. Other studies suggest that prisons with education programs have fewer violent incidents, and that there is a legacy effect—the children of former inmates who have completed college are more likely to complete college themselves—which appears to be a way of breaking the terrible cycle of poverty and incarceration.
Healing the Divide (Part 2)
Both Democratic and Republican states have embraced these programs. There’s been resistance, particularly among Republicans who view these programs as pandering to people who have broken the law—the bleeding heart argument. But money arguments often bridge the partisan divide.
Nathan Deal is the Republican Governor of Georgia, and his state is leading the way in criminal justice reform. They are changing sentencing, increasing rates of felon employment after release and modifying the juvenile detention system. Since 2011, mandatory sentencing minimums have been revised, and judges’ discretion in sentencing has been expanded. The adult prison population has also been given further access to education, including through a program in which two Georgia charter schools go into prisons to teach inmates, helping participants earn their high school diplomas.
“Because it has had a disproportionately high incarceration rate, because it’s in the South, because it’s Republican, people aren’t expecting criminal justice reform to come out of states with those characteristics,” said Alison Holcomb, the national director of the ACLU’s Campaign to End Mass Incarceration. But, despite all of this, Georgia has become what she calls “a leader state.”
Even Louisiana—the state with the highest percentage of individuals in prison in the US—is trying to reform their system. They want to reduce their prison population by 10 percent in ten years, which might not seem like a lot compared to other places, but it’s a step in the right direction. Prisoners in for nonviolent crimes will have their sentences reduced and a chance at parole. What’s exciting is that, like Georgia, Louisiana is a Republican state. Prison reform is an area in which Democrats and Republicans can often find agreement. The Republicans see that this will save the state $262 million. Will they support rehabilitation programs and job training to keep those folks out of prison? One hopes that’s the next step.
It’s not Norway, but it’s an encouraging start.
(Cover image courtesy of Knut Egil Wang, the New York Times)