Saturday, May 26, 2012

A visit to Norway's Halden Fensel Prison...for enlightenment and hope

By Doug Saunders, Globe and Mail, May 26, 2012
 If a neighbourhood kid grabs you on the street, slashes you with a knife and steals your wallet, once you get over the pain, the rage, the fear and the police bureaucracy, you’ll probably want him sent to prison.
But what sort of prison? That’s where you, as a victim, confront the question that most countries face today: Correction or revenge? Do you want to hurt the criminal, or do you want to hurt crime?
That European sense So ask yourself. Would you want him to do time in Norway’s Halden Fengsel, possibly the best prison in the world?
Halden, completed two years ago, is a nicer place than the homes that many of its inmates come from. There are comfortable cells with flat-screen TVs, Ikea-style wood furniture and mini-fridges, teaching kitchens, music studios and excellent libraries, two-storey houses for lengthy visits with partners and children, guards who don’t carry weapons and share meals and sports with the inmates – a great many of them murderers and rapists.
Prisoners are locked in their cells between 8:30 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., but are otherwise expected to be engaged in classes, treatment programs and prison-yard jobs. “If you have very few activities, your prisoners become more aggressive,” prison governor Are Høidal told The Guardian this week.
Despite the seriousness of their crimes and their deprived backgrounds, the inmates rarely fight. They do have incentives: If they misbehave, they can get sent to a less enjoyable “closed” prison, like the one that will house anti-immigration terrorist Anders Breivik.
Mr. Høidal has explained in earlier interviews that revenge and suffering have no place in the Norwegian prison system. “We want to build them up, give them confidence through education and work and have them leave as better people.”
Does that make you feel all warmhearted and hopeful for the kid who disfigured you? Are you yearning to give him the chance to become a better person? Probably not. There’s a good chance it infuriates you. Especially when you learn that it’s costing more money to keep him in this luxe prison than you earn in a year.
But consider this: Fewer than one in five prisoners in Halden will commit another serious crime after being released. In Canada, the United States and Britain, the rate is more like three in five.
We know exactly why Norway has such lower recidivism numbers. Prisoners, being under constant observation, are very easy to study, and they’ve been studied like mad. Cambridge University criminologist Friedrich Lösel recently compared scores of studies in a dozen countries and found they reached almost identical conclusions.
He found that what causes prisoners to reoffend at lower rates, everywhere, is basic education, vocational and employability programs, anger management and therapy while behind bars (or, in Norway, no bars). On the other hand, things that cause prisoners to reoffend more after release include longer sentences, strict discipline, deterrent “shock incarceration” programs and regular sanctions (such as withdrawal of privileges).
In other words, we have a stark choice: We can punish people more, or we can reduce crime more. One cancels out the other. Sadly, though, it is a sense of anger and vengeance that motivates policy decisions in most countries these days.
In fact, it would seem that anger and vengeance motivates policy decisions on more than incarceration practices. Governments like that in Norway demonstrate to the world that how they treat the "least" of their people models their attitudes to the "rest" of their people...and we would all do well to take a page from their playbook.
Ideally, no country seeks higher rates of recidivism; yet, many 'achieve' them simply because of a short-sighted, vindictive, punitive and angry perspective that motivates the demographic power base of the people in power. And playing to that power base keeps the politicians in power.
Where does the world view come from, that seeks to punish the criminal, rather than the crime?
I would respectfully suggest that religion and faith both have a significant impact on the worldviews of people.
If one has been raised in and has bought into a faith perspective that concentrates on the "sin" and the "worthlessness" of human beings, leading to the need for redemption, through pain and  punishment, there is a higher probability that such persons, and cultures replete with such persons, will write policies that concentrate on punishment, as a way of "taking care" of those who demonstrate deviance from what is considered acceptable. And those definitions, too, will likely derive directly from some holy book, that includes injunctions comparable to those in the Decalogue.
Interestingly, and somewhat paradoxically, the Decalogue, in the Old Testament, does not include specific forms of punishment. And the New Testament finds injunctions to "do unto others what you would have them do unto you" and to "love your enemies as yourself" and the "poor will inherit the earth" and....a rather insightful, compassionate and farsighted attitude to others that many, in the west, have come to associate with "socialism" and with "soft on crime" and with "unmanly"attitudes of the state. And in the powerlessness of victimhood, or at least perceived victimhood, we focus on those acts and attitudes that demonstrate our "power over" others, no matter how desperate we might be for that moment of "power."
Narcissistically, we seek vengeance, although at least one 'holy book' reminds us that "vengeance is mine, says the Lord"...and even find a perverse kind of comfort in executing that motive, including, in the U.S. in some 38 states, the execution of the person found guilty of murder.
As a fantasy, one would propose an excursion, a boatload, of the most "committed" evangelical christians to the prison described above in Norway, to spend a week listening to all the perspectives on the history, philosophy and policy background of that prison, so that they could see that the narrow, controlling, anal and punitive attitudes they took across the Atlantic, as part of their "holy" and "sacred" theology and belief system represent more of a distortion of anything that God could or would represent, support and propose than what they have witnessed in the Norway prison.
There is really nothing more sinister than a born-again Christian telling the world how to punish evil and evil doers, except perhaps a country committed to the same kind of vengeance. Unfortunately, most have not noticed the "plank" in their own eye, while focussing instead on the "spec" in the eye of the other.
It is the "deprived backgrounds" that we know are at the centre of criminal behaviour, and both prevention of those deprivations, and designing policies and practices that sustain all people in their pursuit of their higher purposes that can and will reduce even the need for prisons.
And such prevention and policies will only come from people whose humility and whose grace and whose theology sees their own vulnerability as a gift from God, and not their "superiority" and their moral purity and sanctimoniousness as that gift.

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