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A better way to run prisons


A better way to run prisons

Jun 08, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Craig Waleed
A better way to run prisons
Butner Prison (Photo: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

In recent years, the global conversation surrounding the purpose and effectiveness of prisons has undergone a significant shift. Rather than focusing solely on punishment and isolation, countries like Germany and Norway have pioneered a more therapeutic approach to incarceration. By prioritizing restoration, human dignity, substance use, and mental health treatment, as well as practicing the principle of normality and limiting solitary confinement, these countries are creating prisons that aim to foster rehabilitation and produce good neighbors. Moreover, their progressive models serve as a beacon of hope for reforming prison systems worldwide, forcing them to live up to what it means to be the Department of Corrections. 

As I learned during a recent tour I was able to take of facilities in Hamburg, Germany and Norway’s capital city of Oslo, these prisons are designed to recognize that the primary goal of incarceration should be the restoration of both the individual and the community. Rather than perpetuating a cycle of dehumanization, these countries prioritize the preservation of human dignity within the prison environment.

In Germany, “Vollzugshilfe” is practiced — guidelines that emphasize providing comprehensive support to individuals to facilitate their reintegration into society. Similarly, in Norway, the focus is on creating conditions that empower incarcerated people to take responsibility for their actions, fostering a sense of personal accountability and encouraging pro-social behavior. 

Among the strategies that both systems employ toward these ends:

  • Emphasizing substance use and mental health treatment — Recognizing the nexus between substance use, mental health, and criminal behavior, the facilities I saw prioritize comprehensive treatment programs within their prison systems. This “Therapeutic Communities” approach provides evidence-based treatment interventions to address substance abuse disorders, while emphasizing community support and peer involvement.
    In Oslo, I learned that the emphasis is on individualized mental health treatment programs that address the underlying causes of criminogenic behavior. By tackling these issues head-on, both nations aim to break the cycle of reoffending and support incarcerated people in becoming contributing members of society upon release. 
  • Building and environment of “normality” The German and Norwegian systems also adhere to the code of “normality” within their prisons, aiming to replicate the conditions and routines of everyday life as closely as possible. In Hamburg, this was exemplified by open living units, where the incarcerated can access communal spaces and engage in meaningful activities. Similarly, in Oslo I witnessed an emphasis on providing people in prison with education, work, and vocational training opportunities, in an effort to ensure a smoother transition back into society. By normalizing prison environments, these countries seek to promote social integration and reduce the stigmatization associated with incarceration. 
  • Limiting solitary confinement — Both the German and Norwegian systems also recognize the detrimental effects of prolonged solitary confinement on individuals’ mental well-being and potential for successful reintegration. Consequently, they restrict solitary confinement to the shortest possible duration and only impose it in exceptional circumstances. Instead, these countries prioritize alternative approaches such as structured activities, therapy, and interventions to promote positive behavior. By avoiding the excessive use of isolation, both systems prioritize incarcerated people’s mental health and well-being and seek to foster an environment conducive to rehabilitation.
  • Intense corrections officer training — The German and Norwegian systems also evidence an understanding of the crucial role corrections officers play in creating a positive prison environment that facilitates rehabilitation. Both countries prioritize extensive training for corrections officers, so as to equip them with the necessary skills to engage effectively with prisoners and promote a culture of respect, empathy, and support. By investing in officer training, both have built a workforce that better understands the complexities of rehabilitation and is better prepared to contribute to transforming individuals into good neighbors. 

Of course, none of these observations should be read to imply that serving a prison sentence in Germany or Norway is a pleasant experience or that either system is trouble free. The loss of one’s freedom is invariably deeply traumatic wherever and whenever it occurs and neither system is immune to failures like recidivism. 

But especially for a nation like the U.S. that imprisons such a huge percentage of its population with such frequently poor results, the two European systems serve as role models that showcase the transformative power of restoration, substance use and mental health treatment, a commitment to “normality,” limited use of solitary confinement, intense corrections officer training, and most importantly, respect for human dignity. By prioritizing rehabilitation and creating more supportive prison environments, both countries are making significant strides toward fostering the development of good neighbors, and ultimately, reducing the demand for their services. Nations around the world would do well to follow their lead.