With the First Step Act signed into law, President Trump has set a new direction for America’s federal criminal justice system. Yet even with this significant achievement, crucial aspects of the system, especially our jails and prisons, are still far from ideal.
Life in prisons creates extreme and unnecessary hardships for inmates and the guards who watch them. For inmates, persistent degradation has led to the constant threat of violent altercations during incarceration and chronic rates of recidivism. For correctional professionals, their training aids them in the use of surveillance to monitor the inmate population but fails to equip them with the tools needed to positively interact with inmates. Given that 95 percent of inmates will ultimately re-enter our communities, the first step at alleviating this needless suffering must be to stop stripping inmates (and, in turn, correctional staff) of their dignity behind bars.
In prisons today, cells are cramped, cement-covered boxes barely suitable for two occupants. Prisons themselves lack educational and career programming, and inmates’ socialization with the outside world is extremely limited. A study of the connection between prison conditions and recidivism found no compelling evidence that these conditions have a deterrent effect on criminal activity. Instead, researchers found that harsh prison conditions actually play a role in increasing inmates’ post-release criminal activity.
The ill effects of harsh prison conditions do not stop with the inmates themselves; staff respond to this antagonistic environment by hardening themselves and suppressing trauma. Oftentimes the emotional turmoil guards experience on the job trickles into their private lives. Correctional officers also suffer from among the highest rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorders. Indeed, chronic understaffing and a dwindling supply of interested staff candidates that plague prisons across the nation signal widespread staff dissatisfaction with current conditions.
To solve these problems, the United States should look to other models for a fresh approach to corrections. Dynamic security, a Norwegian model that promotes safety by building interpersonal relationships between staff and inmates, offers great promise for members of both groups. Within this model, normalization (or making life in prison closely resemble life in a community) and preparation for re-entry take precedence over incapacitation. Similarly, resocialization replaces isolation. Instead of simply treating inmates as potential problems, guards act as motivators and actively shape a positive culture within the prison community. By learning to respect the humanity of inmates, the guards play an integral role in preparing them for re-entering society, and both inmates and staff reap the benefits.
Contrary to popular belief, Norway’s prison population does not consist solely of nonviolent offenders. Nearly half of Norwegian inmates are arrested for murder, assault, or rape, and more than 90 percent of the total inmate population has a diagnosed mental illness. Yet Bastoy, a facility dubbed “ the world’s nicest prison,” boasts a reoffending rate of only 16 percent. This pales in comparison to the 37 percent of released prisoners that were re-arrested in the United States from 2012 to 2015.
There is no doubt that the Norwegian model costs more up front — Norway’s $93,000 per-inmate annual cost dwarfs the $36,000 price tag for federal inmates in the United States. However, the increase in initial cost is ultimately outweighed by improvements in public safety. If the United States were to achieve an incarceration rate of 75 per 100,000 residents (a rate similar to Norway’s), the United States could spend that same amount and still ultimately save over $45 billion a year.
It is important to recognize that America and Norway are two very different places. The United States has about 350 million people while Norway has around 5.3 million. The countries also have different histories, social pressures and economies, meaning that not all policies that work in Norway will work here. However, given the similarities between the prison populations in the United States and Norway, taking a cue from Norway’s correctional aim to “ produce a good neighbor” could serve the United States well.
When it comes to prisons, we are losing out by not sharing the starting point of our European neighbors — the belief that “every human being possesses an intrinsic worth, merely by being human.” This belief recognizes the dignity of both inmates and those who guard them. Respecting the inherent worth of those who live and work in our prisons will help move us away from dehumanizing inmates and staff, and toward empowering individuals in their transformation.
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