The ICPA Board Visits Halden Prison in Norway

By Frank Porporino, Ph.D., ICPA Board Member - May 20th, 2014

The ICPA Board Visits Halden Prison in Norway – A Showcase of Good Correctional Practice or Unnecessary Luxury for Prisoners?

Can a prison be secure but still be humane? Can it make both staff and prisoners feel safe without obliging them to remain separated? Can staff interact with prisoners in a respectful, courteous, friendly and responsive way and yet retain their authority and professionalism? Can a prison look like a prison from one perspective, surrounded by an imposing six meter concrete wall as you approach it, but then feel more like a nature park on the inside, with expanses of green space, a few buildings here and there, large clusters of trees and bushes, flowers, benches to sit on, and even a natural stream of water flowing peacefully along one side. Can a prison ensure there is loss of liberty for a time (i.e., the sentence imposed by the courts) but in an environment that is relatively pleasant and encouraging of personal reflection rather than one that is continually punitive or oppressive and encouraging of bitterness and resentment. Do prisons have to be austere, ugly, foul smelling, congested, dispiriting and confining in order to do their job? Some believe they should. Even some correctional professionals believe they should. But Norway, quite unapologetically, doesn’t think so. After two long days of intensive meetings, the ICPA Board recently had the privilege of visiting Halden Prison near Oslo, a prison that expresses concretely, in form and function, the philosophy that there need not be any intentionally punitive aspect to imprisonment. Correctional practice in Norway is underpinned by several important principles:

• The only ‘right’ that offenders should lose is their right to liberty. They should retain all other rights, just like every other citizen.

• And as a corollary of this first principle, there is the belief that the prison experience should be designed to approximate, as much as possible, life on the outside.

Because of these two principles, Halden prison gives offenders access to a whole range of vocational, educational, cultural, recreational, leisure, spiritual and other activities. But after seeing the hotel sized living accommodations, nice small rooms with a picture window (shatterproof glass, no bars), twin bed and desk, small flat-screen TV, small refrigerator, and a private toilet, sink and shower, you might wonder why offenders would choose to leave their rooms. Perhaps it would be to go play some music or sing in the professionally equipped music studio, visit the fully equipped gymnasium or exercise room, go buy some goodies in the small on-site supermarket, or go hang around the spacious library with access to the latest magazines, newspapers, computers and even select internet sites. It might be to have a private visit with family in a nicely equipped room with couches and coffee tables, or just to visit alone with their partner and use the couch as something other than a couch (clean sheets are in the cupboard).

But Halden is more than just a pretty set of buildings and grounds with a regime that includes lots of activities. Perhaps most impressive for me was the fact that the staff at Halden seemed to be genuinely ‘happy’ people – not the usual stern or sour-faced prison officer -- but warm, energetic, professionally groomed in their spiffy uniforms, with a spring in their step and a smile on their face. As we were touring through the ‘segregation’ area and I asked the officer for how long did they usually punish prisoners, her response was unhesitant as she said, “We don’t punish prisoners at Halden; we give them time to calm down”. I couldn’t find a better example to illustrate Halden staff values and culture.

Some readers might be saying so OK, what’s the big deal, Norway is very humane. But a lot of minimum-security camps or prisons in many parts of the world give offenders the same kinds of privileges. So here is the BIG deal. Halden prison is a maximum-security prison for the relatively small proportion of offenders in Norway serving lengthy sentences, on average of about 7 years, which by Norwegian standards is very high since the average length of sentence in the system is less than 6 months. And there is an even bigger deal to consider. Halden prison, which incidentally covers a landmass of 150,000 square meters surrounded by a 1.4-kilometer ring wall, was built at a cost of about 250 million US dollars to house only about 250 prisoners. In the US, the average cost per cell for new prisons is about 50K. In other words, you could build enough cells in America to house 20 prisoners for the cost of one cell at Halden! Operating costs would make for even more interesting comparisons since Halden has about 340 staff for their 250 prisoners. American criminologists coined the phrase ‘million dollar blocks’ a few years ago to refer to the fact that the cost of incarcerating individuals from only one city block in many inner city neighborhoods was exceeding a million dollars. In Norway they instead have ‘million dollar cells’.

But the key issue is this. Norway reports one of the lowest rates of recidivism in the world – about 20% after 3 years. You would be hard pressed to find another jurisdiction showing this kind of record. There was a TV commercial many years ago imploring people to more regularly change their engine oil with the reminder that you could ‘pay a little now or pay a lot later’. Norway believes prisons should create ‘normalized’ environments so that when prisoners return to their communities they are not more damaged, more ill, more embittered or more criminally inclined than when they first entered prison. There is a front-end price to pay for this and Norway is not investing this way because they want to pamper prisoners. They are doing it because of the belief that it is the best and most economical path to ensure and sustain broad public safety (not to mention phenomenal staff morale)!

My personal biases are a bit transparent from what I've written. But please join the debate. Is Norway fundamentally on the right track in what they are doing or are they just squandering their oil riches on a silly idea?? Let’s debate this very crucial ‘difference in opinion’ in our business. Can prisons be prisons and still be nice places to work in for staff and pleasant places to live in (and self-improve) for prisoners?

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