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Monday, May 3, 2010

Prisons – punishment or rehabilitation?

I read a really fascinating article over the weekend about Norway’s newest prison. The compound is spread over 75 wooded acres and features jogging trails, cooking classes, flat-screen TVs, in-room minifridges and nicely appointed shared living rooms. Brick, galvanized steel and wood instead of concrete and bars. A security wall with an aesthetically-pleasing rounded top instead of barbed wire. Prison guards (both men and women to lower levels of aggression) don’t carry guns and eat meals and play sports with their charges. The music teacher calls them her pupils.

The first thoughts that came to my mind as I read the article were, “Wow, that doesn’t sound so bad. Flat screen TVs and walking paths? I thought prison was supposed to be punishment.”

These thoughts brought to my mind the intrinsic difference between our country’s focus of imprisonment of criminals – punishment – and that of Norway’s – rehabilitation. According to the article, the guiding principles of Norway’s penal system are “repressive prisons do not work and that treating prisoners humanely boosts their chances of reintegrating into society.” It’s definitely working for them. Within two years of release from prison, 20 percent of prisoners in Norway end up back in jail. In the United States, that number is 60 percent.

If someone does something wrong, then I think they should be punished. But it’s not surprising that you hear so much about individuals who grow up and live in troubled environments often end up in an endless cycle of committing crimes and being punished by spending time in prison, just to get out and commit another crime again. There’s nothing to break the never-ending cycle of violence.

So, I wonder what would happen if our penal system switched their emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation, with the desire to break the cycle and really change prisoners’ lives so they really can reenter society. Of course this isn’t as easy as just flipping a switch. I’m sure that Norway’s low prison population (3,300, or 69 per 100,000 people, compared to our 2.3 million, or 753 per 100,000), sure helps but their success is definitely impressive.

What do you think?

~ Nicole