To Punish or Rehabilitate: Lessons from Comparing US Prisons Across International Lines

What happens after someone is convicted of murder?

In the most serious cases, the person is given life without parole or a death penalty sentence. Here, he or she is held in strict quarters, likely to never rejoin society.

Or the person could receive a life sentence of around 15 years, possibly serve a 21-year term and have no chance at the death penalty.

Both these scenarios can be reality; however, it solely depends on where the crime was committed.

The first outcome happens to be in the United States. The second in Norway. And this is just one of many examples of the different approaches to crime throughout the world.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the United States sends more people to prison than any other nation, thus illustrating its theories on the purpose of prison and how the facilities should look and operate. Comparing this crime outlook to the United Kingdom, Germany and Scandinavia demonstrates the varying definition of prison sentences and what it requires to rehabilitate someone.

Words and Graphics by Daniel Priore

Incarceration and Crime at a Glance

Incarceration, in its simplest understanding, is defined as the state of being held in prison, separate from the freedom of society. The act of incarcerating someone, though, can reveal how a society views criminal justice. Even though there aren’t an overwhelming amount of violent crimes in the United States, its high incarceration rate, and high rate of people being re-arrested, compared to other countries showcases its preference for punishment.

The U.S. incarceration rate sits at 698 per 100,000 residents, giving it the highest prison population in the world. For global context, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) tracked the incarceration rates of each state, as if it were its own country, with results yielding even more drastic approaches to imprisonment. Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi all topped the four-digit marker with rates of 1,079, 1,052 and 1,039 respectively. Pennsylvania’s rate is 725, just above the United States’ rate. Maine, which has the lowest rate among the states at 363, is more than double the closest founding NATO country (the United Kingdom).

Even though the United Kingdom incorporates similar prison practices as the United States, such as withholding prisoners’ right to vote, it only has an incarceration rate of 139. This is where the United Kingdom’s difference with the United States ends though. In 2006, Wiliam Higham and John Reid wrote in the Yorkshire Post about how rapid convictions have led to unstable overpopulation in U.K. prisons.

“The last 10 years have also seen the number of women in prison more than double,” Higham and Reid said. Most have children and, for almost all, their imprisonment will mean the destruction of a household, with far-reaching consequences. The imprisonment of children has also far outstripped the growth of the adult population.

“The huge majority are in there for non-violent offences such as shoplifting.”

Certainly the perspective on what constitutes crime, and ultimately a conviction, varies drastically throughout the world. Violent crime is condemned throughout the world. PPI indicated, though, violent crime rates in the United States do not necessarily justify the country’s cause for separating all criminals from society.

According to PPI’s Peter Wagner and Wendy Sawyer, countries like Turkmenistan, Thailand, Rwanda and Russia, that have authoritarian governments or have recently experienced armed conflicts, rank alongside the least disciplinary U.S. states.

In fact, murder rates in El Salvador, Russia, Panama, Costa Rica and Brazil are more than double the United States. According to the World Atlas, the United States ranked 32 in the world among nations in homicide rates in 2016. Despite the low rates, PPI points out the U.S criminal justice system uses incarceration as the primary response to crime, as over 70% of convictions will result in some degree of confinement.

The United States harsher approach to criminal justice has yielded a higher recidivism rate than other countries implementing a different approach.

For example, Norway’s recidivism rate is as low as 20%, indicating the nation is succeeding with its more caring criminal justice system. The country offers plenty of vocational services and skill-building workshops.

In 2015, New York Times reporter Jessica Benko wrote: “With one of the highest per capita gross domestic products of any country in the world, thanks to the profits from oil production in the North Sea, Norway is in a good position to provide all of this.”

In her article, data from the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, shows spending on Halden prison in Norway reaches $93,000 per inmate each year. In the United States, spending is around $31,000. Benko outlines that, despite Norway’s seemingly high figure, if the United States had as low of an incarceration rate as the Scandinavian nation (74 per 100,000 residents as of 2018) and spent $93,000 per prisoner, they would still save about $45 billion per year compared to what is currently being spent.

Sentencing Reveals the Purpose of Prison

The United States has more people in prison than those who have received fines, probation and suspended sentences in the Netherlands and Germany. In Germany, 79% of crimes warrant a fine, while only 6% warrant incarceration and 15% warrant a suspended prison sentence. In the Netherlands, 56% of crimes warrant a fine and 23% warrant probation while only 10% warrant a suspended prison sentence or incarceration.

The difference is especially stark looking at how much more severely the U.S. punishes people: 21% warrant a fine, 37% warrant probation and 70 % warrant incarceration. 

In Germany and the Netherlands, only a small percentage of offenders go to prison. This makes it easier to enroll prisoners into rehabilitation programs to increase their chances of not returning to crime. Germany and Scandinavia focus more on rehabilitating their prisoners rather than merely punishing them.

In 2011, Tapio Lappi-Seppälä and Michael Tonry wrote: “The most severe sentence that may be imposed for a single offense in Denmark, Finland and Sweden is ‘life,’ which in practice means a prison term of around 15 years. Norway has abolished the life sentence and replaced it with a 21-year maximum term.”

For example, 77 people died in the twin terror attacks in Norway – the worst peacetime massacre in the country’s modern history. A massive bomb blast shattered buildings in the capital Oslo, killing eight people and injuring 209 more. Then a gunman rampaged through an island youth camp run by the ruling Labour Party, killing 69 people and wounding 33 others. Norway sentenced Anders Behring Breivik to this “maximum” 21 years in prison for killing 77 people in bombing. However, Breivik will likely be in prison for the rest of his life, as Norway can add additional five years continually to the term.

For the United Kingdom, according to Higham and Reid, the reoffending rate has increased from 51% to 67%.

“The old saw about jails being factories of crime is now all too true,” Higham and Reid said. “The purpose of prison is to punish serious and violent offenders, and, by rehabilitating them, to prevent the next crime, and so spare the next victim.”

Duquesne University law professor John Rago explained rehabilitation is the most progressive prison purpose model, and it needs to be invested in further.

“In Pennsylvania, with the Quaker influence, we have created grades of crime,” Rago said. “We want to incapacitate people, so we’ll warehouse them. I ask anyone to go to a prison and tour it, and after a full day of really touring it, ask yourself if you don’t have the shivers. You will lose your mind.”

According to Rago, punishment for the sake of punishment needs to be reserved for the culprits of the most serious violent crimes.

Linking Rehabilitation to Prison Conditions

In 2013, the Vera Institute of Justice conducted an extensive investigation on how different countries tackled corrections and sentencing. The organization led a group of state officials from Colorado, Georgia and Pennsylvania to prisons in Germany and the Netherlands with hope to spark policy discussion about U.S. prison reform. These delegation members witnessed the different prison conditions firsthand, as well as engaged with corrections officials and inmates.       

Mark Bergstrom, the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing Executive Director, served on the delegation from Pennsylvania. He said the experience was remarkable.

“Their approach to jails and prisons was much more about just taking someone out of their home or their residence and putting them in this other place,” Bergstrom said. “Their approach was much more humanizing in terms of people wearing street clothes and individuals having a key to the room that they’re saying in or to the cell that they have.”

According to the Vera report, Germany and the Netherlands build their prison structure this way is in order to achieve normalization. This is the idea of making life in a prison similar to life in a community. Work and education programs are required, and inmates are also allowed to prepare their own meals.

In terms of the physical structures, the prisons are well lit, have comfortable temperatures, plenty of windows and wide hallways.

The three delegations were particularly interested in a mother-child unit a German prison. This concept is not uncommon in U.S. institutions, as many prisons have established programs for mothers and their newborns. For this housing unit in Germany, mothers are allowed raise their children up three years of age. Mothers and their children receive health care and are offered parenting classes and babysitting services.

“The aim of the program is to allow for the formation of maternal and child bonds during a critical period of infant development,” the report detailed.

For these countries, the focus of rehabilitation requires an all-round means to inmate care. Corrections staff must be properly qualified in terms of education and training in order to act similar to social workers and behavior specialists, Vera reported.

In Germany, training lasts two years as potential staff will have 12 months of theoretical education and 12 months of practical experience. They take classes in criminal law, self-defense, constitutional law, educational theory, psychology, social education, stress and conflict management. As a result, corrections staff will use an incentive and reward procedure with inmates and use positive reinforcement. Solitary confinement can be used as a disciplinary action.

Bergstrom said these staff training resources are possible because of how small their incarcerated number is.

“It goes to their view that if they’re going to take away liberty, or if they’re going to put someone in one of these facilities, they’re going to take full advantage of that time to really try to resolve the issue,” Bergstrom said. “So the person doesn’t come back.”

As Germany and the Netherlands seek normalization to rehabilitation, so does Norway.

Halden Prison, located in southeast Norway, spans 75-acres and has almost identical conditions to prisons in Vera’s report. Windows have no bars, inmates make their own meals in kitchens with sharp objects and they are encouraged to have strong relationship with facility guards. Vocational services are offered which include the likes of woodworking and assembly workshops as well as a recording studio.

In 2015, Benko travelled to Halden Prison to shed light on its radical practices. She toured the grounds and went inside the walls and interacted with inmates and their daily activities.

“Its modern, cheerful and well-appointed facilities, the relative freedom of movement it offers, its quiet and peaceful atmosphere — these qualities are so out of sync with the forms of imprisonment found in the United States that you could be forgiven for doubting whether Halden is a prison at all,” Benko wrote. “Every aspect of the facility was designed to ease psychological pressures, mitigate conflict and minimize interpersonal friction.”

Benko described part of this measure is the emphasis on experiencing nature. The grounds feature an ecosystem populated by farmlands and blueberry woods, to which inmates can utilize the peaceful setting to fight any internal struggles.  

Norway’s prison on Bastøy Island is much in the same. The area contains 80 buildings with roads, beaches, farms and forests. Inmates are welcomed to the outdoors and are housed in wooden cabins as they work on the land – a job they receive compensation for. 

Breivik though, who represents an extreme case of violent crime in Norway, does not receive all these opportunities. Breivik, held in a prison in Skien, is isolated in a three-cell unit. He has access to a personal gym, video games, a DVD player, a typewriter, books and newspapers; however, he is regularly stripped-searched and handcuffed. Facility staff prepare all of his meals. The ring-wing extremist has been in a lengthy legal battle with Norway as he claimed the conditions violated his human rights and have led him to become more radicalized. In June 2018, the European Courts of Human Rights ruled in favor of Norway which argued his mental state demanded that he remain in isolation.

While Breivik will likely never re-enter society again, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway all strive to situate most inmates for their next community.

According to the Vera report, as inmates prepare to leave their respective institutions, they will receive social welfare benefits. Unlike the U.S., released prisoners will still maintain housing, driving and other professional licenses.

“In the Netherlands, many offenders are allowed to ‘report’ to their prison sentences during the week so that they can return home on the weekends to work on their relationships and practice the various skills learned through reentry programming in prison,” Vera reported.

The Next Steps

The differences are striking.

And that begs the question, is it possible for the United States to learn from other nations?

The purpose of the Vera Institute investigation was to offer members of the delegation the opportunity to blend in criminal justice practices from Germany and the Netherlands. For Bergstrom, it will difficult.

“One of the things we don’t have, as compared to those that I visited, is that sort of really strong social safety network of treatment and other kinds of services that you can rely on,” Bergstrom said. “Pennsylvania is pretty slow to make changes, and when we make changes, they’re fairly incremental,” Bergstrom said. “So, we’re not out there breaking down barriers, and that sometimes is limiting.”

Bergstrom argues public perception is the key; however, despite gradual shifts of wanting to improve the system, the United States is culturally different from European countries.

“We have high levels of incarceration and for long duration and, we have been making incremental changes that help a little bit around the edges,” he said. But to make fundamental, big changes we need in the public to really grab onto reform and really rethink things.

“Everything we do, the starting point is retribution. And when we say accountability, we mean punishment. And when we mean punishment, we usually mean incarceration, and more is better. And so you have to really be able to change that paradigm to start making fundamental changes to our correctional system.”

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