Norway’s Halden Prison Revolutionizes Incarceration

By: Sylvia Woodbury — Correspondent

In theory, the American incarceration system aims to successfully rehabilitate offenders back into society, or, if necessary, confine them permanently for the safety of the general populace. However, it consistently places more emphasis on punishment and confinement than providing means for inmates to be incorporated back into society. 

Not only is the structure of prison life in America harsh, dehumanizing, and not conducive to autonomy in the outside world, but the reasons behind it lie in the appearance of controlling crime while actually worsening it. One of the most advanced prisons in the world lies outside of Halden, Norway, a high-security prison with a radicalized design, intended to prioritize comfort and humane treatment of prisoners. 

Comparing Halden prison to American prisons — and their effects on inmates and society — reveals the beneficent results of revolutionizing harsh penitentiary systems. The Halden prison architect, Gudrun Molden, explains, “The sentence is taking away the freedom. . . . Everyday life shouldn’t the sentence.”

When comparing the structure of American prisons to European ones, several noticeable differences jump out. Oftentimes—though discrepancies between prisons exist—European inmates have a much higher degree of autonomy in prisons that focus on humane, comfortable living conditions. In Germany and the Netherlands, prisoners wear their own clothes, prepare their own food, have keys to their cells, and their own walled toilets. 

Comparatively, American inmates wear uniforms, have a strict daily routine, have their meals prepared for them, and overall have very limited independence. According to a National Academy of Sciences report, the American prison routine limits the ability for released prisoners to gain purchase in society after release. 

Are Høidal, the governor of the Halden prison, states, “In Norway, the punishment is just to take away someone’s liberty. The other rights stay. Prisoners can vote, they can have access to school, to health care; they have the same rights as any Norwegian citizen. Because inmates are human beings. They have done wrong, they must be punished, but they are still human beings.”

Most prisons are designed to be only one building with branches and a central hub. However, Halden is formed like a campus, with inmates residing in separate buildings encircled by a wall. The prison is constructed to provide inmates with a sense of freedom in their commute between different buildings and the surrounding greenery, which diminishes the view of the perimeter wall. 

Not only is the design of Halden prison different, but the very materials used to create it — wood and glass — are less harsh and more sound-absorbent to be more palatable to inmates. Høidal explains, “If you stay in a box for a few years, then you are not a good person when you come out. If you treat them hard . . . well, we don’t think that treating them hard will make them a better man. We don’t think about revenge in the Norwegian prison system. We have much more focus on rehabilitation. It is a long time since we had fights between inmates. It is this building that makes softer people.” So far at the prison, there have been no escape attempts. 

While in America, prison correctional officers might undergo three to twenty weeks of training (depending on the prison, of course — in California this is accompanied by a two-year apprenticeship at a prison), at Halden the guards have to undergo a two-year university course. The number of staff also outnumbers the prisoners, with 340 staff members to 245 prisoners. 

“We have many more prison officers than prisoners. They are talking about why they are here, what problems got them into this criminality. Our role is to help them and to guard them. The prison governor role in Norway is unique. They are meant to be coaches, motivators, a role model for the inmates,” Høidal explains.

The way the guards and prisoners interact is more humane as well. Housing is broken up into several shared residences where prisoners and officers are encouraged to interact. Molden states, “And this—that the guards are together with the inmates—is a very important security system.” 

Halden prison is designed to give inmates both a better life on the inside and a better one on the outside. Average rates of recidivism (a convicted criminal committing another crime) in the US lie at 76.6% after five years, while at Halden prison, they lie at 20% after five years. While Halden is an outlier in Norway, crime rates and recidivism rates across the country are among the lowest in the world. Before the current model focused on rehabilitation, which gained traction in the 90s, Norway’s criminal justice system followed a penal system similar to the US with a recidivism rate of 91%.

Recidivism and incarceration rates sharply dropped when the system shifted its focus from punishment to rehabilitation. Aside from better living conditions, Norwegian prisons placed increased importance on securing jobs and houses for inmates before their release from prison. Prisoners are paid approximately 7.80 US dollars per day if they leave their cells, and can complete work and educational classes. Høidal asks, “Every inmate in Norwegian prison is going back to society. Do you want people who are angry — or people who are rehabilitated?”

Perhaps the only deficit in the Halden system is its expense. It spends about $93,000 on each prisoner per year, compared to $30,000 in the US. However, the US incarceration rate lies at a staggering 700 per every 100,000 residents, while in Norway only 75 are incarcerated per every 100,000 residents. 

If the US incarcerated its prisoners at the same rate as Norway, it could spend the same amount per inmate as Norway and still save $45 billion dollars per year. But how could the US system feasibly do this? The answer lies in decreasing the length of sentences and turning the system away from punishment and towards rehabilitation. In Norway, there are no life sentences and no death sentences. The average sentence in Norway lies around eight months, and the maximum is 21 years, which can be renewed indefinitely by five years at a time. 

In the US, the average sentence is 27 months. Incarceration rates increased sharply in the 70s to 90s due to a crackdown on drugs and crime which was directly and purposefully targeted towards communities of color, especially black communities. In the US, more people are sentenced for drug possession than for any other crime and can be sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for trace amounts of a drug. 

Long sentences, harsh penalties surrounding drug possession, and felony disenfranchisement all contribute to mass incarceration, which harshly affects inmates and impairs America’s ability to grow and improve as a country. America’s prison system is clearly not working and calls for radical change. Thankfully, Halden prison provides an inspiring model to learn from. Høidal states, “We are releasing your neighbor. . . . If we treat inmates like animals in prison, then we will release animals on to your street.”

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