When John Pratt visited one of Sweden’s ‘open prisons’ outside the capital Stockholm, he was shocked by what he saw.
– There was a parking lot for the inmates and they commuted to Stockholm during the day to work, he tells ABC RN’s Rear Vision.
“If they were to come back late at night, they would call the prison and a meal would be left out for them when they got back.”
Pratt, an emeritus professor from the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, says it was all “hard to digest … but that’s how it works”.
Open prisons exist in the Nordic countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland and are just one part of criminal justice systems that are very different from Australia.
There, it is generally accepted that punishment and rehabilitation go hand in hand, and that prisoners, regardless of crime, have certain rights.
And it seems to be working – these countries have some of the lowest crime rates and lowest recidivism rates in the world.
So what do these Nordic countries do differently and what can Australia learn from them?
Keeping people out of prisons
Baz Dreisinger is a professor and executive director of the Incarceration Nations Network. She has an in-depth knowledge of criminal justice systems worldwide.
Dreisinger says first of all that these Nordic countries have excellent social services, which have important flow-on effects.
“Because of strong social services, crime is less likely to occur,” she says.
But when crimes do occur, these countries work hard to keep people out of the prison system.
“People are not automatically sent to prison as a knee-jerk, immediate response … there are very strong mediation programs that can get people out of the system to begin with,” Dreisinger said.
All over Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland the prison population is about 17,000. This compares to about 42,000 in Australia and more than 2 million in the United States.
These countries also have very different attitudes when it comes to sending children to prison – they do it very rarely.
As Dreisinger says, “Sending a young person to detention is the absolute, absolute last resort … It [only] happens under extreme circumstances”.
In Norway, for example, the age of criminal responsibility is 15 years. But even then, there are only a handful under the age of 18 behind bars.
“There are only a few prisoners in Norway under the age of 18. They have committed serious crimes,” says Jan-Erik Sandlie, deputy director general of the Norwegian Criminal Directorate.
“At the moment, I think there are two or three under 18s in Norwegian prisons.”
It’s a different story in Australia.
Here, the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years. And according to Australian Institute of Health and WelfareOn an average night in 2021, there were 819 young people between the ages of 10 and 17 in youth detention.
People who end up in Nordic prisons can spend a much shorter time there than criminals in other countries.
The maximum term in the Norwegian criminal justice system is, for example, 21 years.
“They have provisions for indeterminate sentences as well. But those are used very, very rarely. And as far as I know, only a handful of inmates are serving those sentences,” says Pratt.
One of these prisoners is Anders Behring Breivik, the far-right terrorist who murdered 77 people in 2011.
Regarding the Breivik case, Dreisinger says: “If there are scenarios where someone is clearly a great danger to society, and needs to be deprived of liberty for long periods of time, that person will be detained”.
“It’s not that the system there is naive, in terms of not recognizing that there are certain people, if you put them in the world, who will cause extreme harm. It’s just that that’s not the starting point of the Norwegian system .”
How are the prisons?
So when it comes to bricks and mortar, and what goes on inside, how different are prisons really?
In Australia prisons are often removed from communities, but in these Nordic countries they are in the middle of cities.
“So if you go to prison, it’s highly likely … your family will be able to see you relatively easily,” Pratt says.
Then there is the difference between “open” prisons and “closed” prisons.
Peter Scharff Smith, professor of legal sociology at the University of Oslo, says open prisons are a large part of the systems, especially in Norway and Denmark.
“In open prisons, it’s not very difficult to escape if you want to. But the reason people don’t escape is if they get caught, they end up in a closed prison with a longer sentence.”
Conversely, Dreisinger points out: “You can increasingly move towards more freedom, more openness … as your meaning continues”.
Pratt remembers another open prison he visited in Finland.
“[The inmates] made some pretty sophisticated motorboats and they got good wages. But they would have to pay a sum from their wages for their board and stay in prison, as if they were renting their cell, he says.
“They would [also] have to donate money from wages to pay off fines or to compensate victims and they would save the rest of the money.”
Crucially, Pratt says: “They weren’t completely excluded from society, as we tend to treat prisoners here”.
Many of the characteristics of Nordic prisons that distinguish them so far from other countries are due to a certain set of principles.
The first is what is called the principle of “normality”.
Dreisinger says the idea is that “life in prisons should resemble life outside as closely as possible”.
“So that means wearing your own clothes, cooking in communal kitchens, having a lot of mobility in different spaces, having a cell that’s not really a cell but more of a dormitory, and then very, very critically, receiving the same services that you would receive as if you were on the outside.”
Next up, the principle of “reintegration” or “progression”.
“There’s a huge emphasis from day one on what’s going to happen when you leave the system — when you get out, when you go home,” Dreisinger says.
And finally, there is the principle of “dynamic security” or “relational security”.
“There is a very different relationship between the officers and the incarcerated individuals,” Dreisinger says.
“Coroners act as guides, as educators. They have a relationship with the people who are incarcerated and work with them, to move them to a better place in life and opportunities when they get out.”
In short: Prison is about rehabilitation.
Less likely to return once released
Whatever you think of these systems, one thing is clear: The recidivism rate is much lower than in other countries.
“When people get out of prison, their likelihood of going back in is low. It hovers somewhere around 20 percent. And that’s compared to 60-something percent in most of the rest of the world. So that’s a significant difference,” says Dreisinger .
In Australia, 53 percent of released prisoners return to correctional services within two years.
Dreisinger attributes lower recidivism rates to how the reintegration process is handled.
“The very fact of going down in security levels as your sentence progresses — moving to an open prison, where you’re allowed to come and go, is critical to the reintegration process, because it means you’re already reintegrating,” she says.
The pretrial period
But these systems are not all as rosy as they seem.
Experts point out that before a person is sentenced – so while they are in custody and waiting for their day in court – they actually have fewer rights than those in other countries.
“Before sentencing in Scandinavian countries, especially Sweden and Denmark, it’s a very, very different thing. The state allows itself to limit the rights of pretrial detainees in ways that are not possible in, say, England,” Scharff says Smith.
For example, in Denmark, under probation, you are not allowed to use the phone and there are very strict restrictions around visitors.
“Pre-trial is a big part of the prison population. If you look at Denmark, it’s more than 30 percent [of those in prison]says Scharff Smith.
“Much that goes on in the detention system has nothing to do with penal exceptionalism. It does not live up to the principle of normalization.”
While there is local support for these schemes, there has also been growing opposition in recent years.
“We’ve seen ‘tough on crime’ policies become more and more popular,” says Scharff Smith.
He says this is particularly acute in Denmark where “it has been a competition to see who can be the toughest”.
“And ironically, it has created a crisis in the Danish prison system, because prison officers are quitting.”
He says, “in my mind, these politicians, they have attacked the heart of the Danish penitentiary or normalization principle, and as a result the prison system is currently in a serious crisis”.
Lessons for Australia
So can Australia learn any lessons from these very different systems? Should we take any of these actions?
“It’s hard to say, because we’re talking about differences that have evolved over about 200 years,” Pratt says.
“[But] I think one of the things that has struck me the most is the importance of having informed debates about crime and punishment issues.”
Pratt cites how during a 2009 Norwegian election, one of the pre-election debates was held in a prison, with an audience of prisoners and officers.
– That’s the kind of emphasis they put on giving all parts of society an opportunity to speak on such occasions, and make sure that the political debate doesn’t just end up as a shouting match, he says.
“Imagine being in prison. Imagine how you would want to be treated. Let’s start treating prisoners like that. That would be a starting point for reform.”
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