The United States has the most punitive criminal legal system in the world, containing 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Prisons and jails in the United States are overcrowded, unsanitary and dehumanizing. In comparison to many other nations, the United States employs prison as a response to offenses more frequently and incarcerates people for longer periods of time. The United States’ ridiculously high recidivism rates attest to the failure of our carceral system — two-thirds of formerly incarcerated Americans are rearrested within just three years of their release, with more than half being sent to jail again. Although the goal should be to reduce or eliminate incarceration by investing in communities, education, housing, health care, social welfare and mental health resources, as well as centering transformative justice and harm reduction frameworks — there are obviously more humane and successful carceral models that the United States can adopt. Incarceration does not have to imply punishment.
A complex history of penal reforms have laid the foundation for our current carceral system. In 1790, inspired by a Quaker group of prison reform advocates, the first penitentiary was created in an expansion of Pennsylvania’s Walnut Street Jail. This new model, which would gain popularity as the “Pennsylvania system,” featured individual cells with bare amenities in which those incarcerated were almost exclusively confined to. In 1821, a new model of prison was introduced in Auburn, New York, that replaced the Pennsylvania system in popularity. The “Auburn system” prioritized labor, mandating those incarcerated to work 10-hour shifts in order to instill disciplinary values and mandating solitary confinement at night. These systems were precursors to the restricted environments, constant surveillance and solitary confinement that characterizes modern jails and prisons.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, prison reformists advocated more subjective and flexible sentencing, birthing the ideas of parole, probation and indeterminate sentencing as well as the implementation of educational, athletic and religious institutions in jails and prisons. In 1940, the “correctional institute model” became widespread, which introduced vocational training, therapy and visitation to those incarcerated, but only for a select few. In the 1950s, the medical model of criminal justice was adopted, which viewed crime as a diagnosable “disease” to be cured through rehabilitation that included education and counseling. However, in the 1970s, amid rising “tough on crime” rhetoric and Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs, a “balanced model” of incarceration took precedence. The Federal Bureau of Prisons said the goals of the balanced model were “punishment, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation.” As one could probably assume, the philosophy behind the balanced model has remained the prominent perspective of criminal reform today.
Other nations are miles ahead of the United States in carceral development. Nordic countries are often praised for their low incarceration and recidivism rates, as well as their humane prison models. When I was beginning to develop an interest in criminal justice reform last year, I came across an article about an “open-campus” prison on Finland’s Suomenlinna Island that encouraged me to realize alternatives to the U.S. incarceration system. The 95 people in the Suomenlinna prison, who range from being incarcerated for crimes like murder to drug trafficking, leave the prison “campus” daily in their own civilian clothing. The officers do not keep pepper spray, tasers or weapons on them since violence is so rare. On the mainland, they can work, study or visit family members, all while being electronically monitored. In the United States, 80,000 to 100,000 Americans are held in solitary confinement each day, and there is often severe overcrowding in jails and prisons, as well as limited access to outdoor spaces or opportunities for exercise. Visiting with family and friends during incarceration has been shown to reduce recidivism rates, yet one study found that on average, incarcerated people in Florida only received two visits throughout the entire duration of their sentence.
In Norway, there are no death penalties or life sentences, and attitudes toward incarcerated people have been overwhelmingly rehabilitative. The Halden Fengsel prison, which has been referred to as “the world’s most humane maximum-security prison,” was opened in Halden, Østfold, Norway, in 2010. On its website, The Story Institute claims that in addition to a recording studio, the prison has “a garden, a holy room, a gym, training room, library, computer room, family visiting house and more.” Every person who is in jail there also has their own bathroom, fridge and flat-screen TV, with no jail bars in any of the open-style rooms. Many only advocate rehabilitation and reform for what The Marshall Project refers to as “’non, non, nons’ — non-violent, non-serious and non-sex offender criminals” — meaning that only serious offenders would be imprisoned.
The striking humanity of Nordic prisons may be due to the lack of political involvement in criminal legal policy. In the United States, political debate has been central to public policy and opinions pertaining to criminal legal matters, and presidents and politicians have taken clear stances on criminal justice reform, having promoted a variety of policies related to crime, policing and incarceration. In Scandinavia, criminal legal decisions, especially regarding incarceration, are made by academic professionals in criminology that would be more motivated to advocate for practices that preserve dignity rather than operating on a political agenda. It is also important to note that Scandinavian countries are strong welfare states and do not imprison nonwhite populations at disproportionate rates in the same manner as the United States, which could explain their less punitive criminal justice and incarceration practices.
North Dakota, a traditionally red state, has modeled a prison after Norway’s Halden Prison. The Missouri River Correctional Center attempts to maximize freedom for those incarcerated by allowing them to wear their own clothes, roam a large campus, leave for shopping excursions or trips to their homes and participate in a work-release program to prepare for reintegration into the workforce. If those incarcerated exhibit good behavior approaching their release, they can earn a private room.
Other countries besides Norway and Denmark have also made efforts to center dignity in carceral institutions. Prisons in Scotland, New Zealand, Sweden and Austria offer private rooms and sanitary, attractive facilities, and Spain’s Aranjuez prison features family units that allow children to live in cells with incarcerated parents. Perhaps most unique, the San Pedro Prison in Bolivia is a mini-community with businesses, cafes and whole neighborhoods.
As prison scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore has said, “where life is precious, life is precious.” The United States has the resources and support to invest in more humane carceral facilities and practices, but our criminal legal system continues to value punishment over rehabilitation, perpetuating what author and civil-rights activist Michelle Alexander has called a “permanent underclass” of people with criminal records. Only 35 percent of state prisons offered college-level courses in 2016, a figure that will hopefully rise with the implementation of the Second Chance Pell Experiment that will allow 69 more colleges to conduct prison education programs. Furthermore, a lack of access to job and vocational training compounds the disadvantage that formerly incarcerated people face in finding employment after release.
Taking away someone’s freedom is punishment enough, and combating violence with violence is counterproductive. Subjecting people to degradation and abuse in inhumane environments and depriving them of education, work or activity does nothing to help those incarcerated prepare for reintegration into society or to reduce the likelihood that one will commit crime in the future, which the United States’ remarkably high recidivism rate attests to. The way that we treat and rehabilitate incarcerated people should reflect the kind of society and behavior that we want. Preparing people to be successful students and workers as well as good neighbors, family members and friends after release should be centered in American jails and prisons.
Doris Turkel is a sophomore majoring in philosophy, politics and law and is assistant Opinions editor.