Our prisons are a mess – we should learn from Norway

Torrin Wilkins

January 22, 2020

It’s no secret that the British prison system is a mess. Systemic issues include overcrowding and high rates of suicide and drug use. These issues go far beyond statistics and charts – they have a very real effect on the lives of inmates and prison staff.

The reforms implemented by former prisons minister Rory Stewart on security and training for prison guards were necessary and highly beneficial. However, the problem is far from solved. Deep and lasting change is needed.

This, perhaps, is where we might benefit from the example set by Norway. In the UK, the philosophy behind the practices of our justice system seems to be that rehabilitation should take second place to punitive measures. We are punishing first, reforming second.

By contrast, Norwegian prisons lead with rehabilitation. For instance, in Bastøy Prison, much of the food served on the facility is grown by prisoners on the grounds of the prison itself, with guards frequently joining in with harvesting vegetables.

It might appear counter-intuitive to allow prisoners to operate on an equal level as guards, engaging in the same activities alongside one another. This system aims to avoid degrading inmates. It allows them to become better people, as well as cultivating better relationships between staff and prisoners.

Norwegian prisons are crafted in such a way that they do not stand out as British ones do, but rather blend into the fabric of society. Halden Prison, for example, looks almost like a college campus, with inmates walking across the prison grounds to start their day, in much the same way as you or I might walk to work in the morning.

This kind of environment allows rehabilitation programmes to play a crucial role. Many Norwegian convicts are sent to drug rehabilitation facilities and never go to prison at all. Taking a reforming approach to justice in this way allows issues to be dealt with at their roots.

Rehabilitation is so important in the Norwegian system that while the maximum prison sentence is ordinarily 21 years, it can be topped up by an extra five years if prisoners are not judged to have been sufficiently rehabilitated. It is not about the time people are incarcerated, but what they do while they are there.

With short sentences overall comes also a focus on life outside of prison. Inmates spend much of their time behind bars learning practical and academic skills that will serve them well once their sentence has been served. Being able to hold down a job is a vital part of reintegration into society.

Some prisons even have their own recording studios where prisoners can record their own music. This allows them to explore their creative side, as well as opening up entirely new avenues of career opportunities that might otherwise have been unthinkable.

Most importantly of all, this system works. Norway has one of the lowest reoffending rates in the world at around 20 per cent and considerably lower incarceration rates than the UK. While these figures are not directly comparable, they are indicative of Norway’s success and its contrast with a system in crisis in the UK.

There are two main obstacles to the implementation of these practices in the UK. The first is opportunity costs and the second is the beast of public opinion. Britain already has prisons but, at some point, we will have to invest in and reform our justice system.

That is when a new style of prison could be introduced into the system on a trial basis, in the style of Halden, perhaps including only those convicted of minor offences, to begin with. While this will inevitably cost money, a clear argument can be made that this move would reduce recidivism in the longer term.

Adopting an entirely new approach to justice would, of course, be impracticable. But incremental change over time, with the public eye being drawn to its positive results, is entirely doable. We could reduce overcrowding, make life easier for prison guards, reduce reoffending rates and make our prisons much more effective.

Placing punishment front and centre has been shown not to work. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind”. If we are to break the recidivistic cycle as Norway has, we cannot blindly continue with a system that is simply not working.


Written by Torrin Wilkins

Torrin Wilkins is chair of Centre UK and Liberal Leave.


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