Doing What Works
Updated: Feb 26, 2022
The people who live in Norway aren’t innately less criminal than the people who live in the United Kingdom, but their prison system alone can't be credited with their lower per capita crime rate. Smaller countries tend to be wealthier and, indeed, Norway is in the top ten richest countries in the world. But, unlike many of the other richest countries, Norway also has one of the lowest income inequality gaps in the world. This means it isn’t just the rich who are rich in Norway: wealth is spread more evenly throughout the population. There is a strong social safety net that protects people when circumstances, bad luck or bad decisions bring problems into their lives.
The United Kingdom sits at 28 on the list. Still a rich country, but wealth is distributed far more unevenly. The government estimated 14.5 million people lived in poverty before the pandemic. 700,000 fell into poverty during the pandemic and with the announcement of increases to household bills, that number is set to rise.
That does not mean Norway is without its problems. When I visited the Norwegian prison estate, there was growing concern about drug smugglers crossing the southern border and growing addiction issues throughout the country. Around the out-of-town substance misuse services I visited, used needles littered the streets. Harm Reduction in the UK is doing a good job of providing safe needle exchanges and educating problematic drug users on the risks involved with intravenous use. This is perhaps one thing we could teach our Norwegian neighbours.
The whole prison estate, however, is a model for the world. Whether you believe we should treat criminals humanely, or you believe they deserve what they get, we can all agree that we should care about the victims of crime. And, because the recidivism rate in Norway is only 20% after 2 years (compared to 48% after one year), the Norwegian prison system protects its people.
Oslo Prison, housing a large remand population, was deemed one of the county’s most rundown establishments when I visited in 2016. Certain wings were earmarked for full renovation or closure. It was the cleanest prison I have ever stepped foot inside. There was meaningful activity for those who secured a spot on one of the rehabilitation units and I spent an afternoon eating lunch at a long table with 19 inmates and un-uniformed guards. There were real plates, glass and cutlery. There was a spread of food that meant prisoners did not have to substitute empty calories with their own purchases from canteen. And, even with knives laid out on the table, I felt safer than I ever had inside any of our own prisons.
Halden Prison, in the south of the country, goes even further. It is a maximum security prison, housing rapists, burglars and murderers, yet there is still a heavy focus on rehabilitation. This is because, like in the UK, Norway knows that almost all inmates will one day be released.
And then, as their motto goes, ‘who would you want as your neighbour?’
A person hardened by the system, without any of the skills needed to participate fully in society, or someone who has dealt with their issues and been educated in the skills required to secure a job, manage a home and integrate in the community?
Many commentators would say that Halden is too soft on criminals. It actively supports them to work and train as mechanics, chefs and music producers all in state-of-the art facilities on-site. Many commentators would say that we cannot afford a system like this, or there is no public appetite for this in the UK.
Yet in the 1990s, Norway’s stance was much like our own, with an even higher recidivism rate. They were tough on crime and gave little thought to rehabilitation. It took a commitment to change from the top down. The UK spends over £40,000 per prisoner, per year. The cost of reoffending is over £18 billion. This money could be used to reduce the prison population and reduce crime, by following a model based on rehabilitation, rather than worthless soundbites that do nothing to make anyone safer.
Opportunities for education and employment are plentiful in Halden, and inmates are expected to engage in these activities. The expectation that they will participate fully as reformed members of society becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the country benefits economically from their entry into paid employment upon release, often for the first time.
You don’t have to be a bleeding heart liberal to recognise the economic and financial benefit to society of focusing on reforming the prison estate. You also don’t have to pit the rights of prisoners against those of victims of crime. If a humane and compassionate system is better for all, then why has it become controversial to say this?
I often felt hopeless working within the prison estate. Visiting Norway made me realise that not only is change preferable, it is also possible. We can do better. And when we do, inmates rise to the challenge and better themselves.
For further reading about my research in Norway, click here.