Why and How Should We Jail Criminals?

Norway’s luxury prisons vs. America’s growing jail problem

by Marie Baleo

Image ©Splash/All Over Press

Image ©Splash/All Over Press

On 15 May 2015, the Boston Marathon jury sentenced 21 year-old bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev to death by lethal injection. In the hours that followed, dozens of articles were published online, and many readers took to the comments section to share their views on the fairness and appropriateness of the verdict. Jubilant commenters rejoiced over the sentence, and quarreled with opponents of the death penalty. Many comments focused on the living conditions in US prisons and justified the death verdict by the perceived injustice in letting Tsarnaev spend the rest of his life in a place where he would be allowed to receive visitors and enjoy small everyday privileges his victims would never again enjoy.

The verdict in the Tsarnaev case and the comments it inspired bring to mind a long-standing debate on the philosophical role of punishment. Similar indignant comments had been made when the seemingly luxurious incarceration conditions of Anders Behring Breivik (sentenced to 21 years in prison Norway) were made public, stemming from a misunderstanding of the way Norway (and other countries) thinks of the role of punishment. Indeed, from a State’s perspective on the purpose of punishment flows the entirety of its criminal system: the resort to, or abolition of, death penalty, the rate and conditions of incarceration, the emphasis on rehabilitation or restorative justice. In this regard, many widely differing systems coexist in the world, from Norway’s unbelievably (too?) humane system to the United States and its baffling incarceration problem.

What purpose(s) does incarceration serve?

Incarceration generally pursues one or more of the four following goals:

  • Deterrence: as a warning to other potential wrongdoers, incarceration can provide a powerful incentive to abide by the law.

  • Incapacitation: incarceration of extremely dangerous individuals serves to protect the public from the threat these individuals’ behaviors constitute.

  • Rehabilitation: incarceration can be a step toward personal reform, and can help make inmates better fit to live a balanced, fulfilling life upon the end of their sentence, inciting them to refrain from engaging in illegal acts.

  • Punishment: incarceration may serve as a mean to restore justice, by providing punishment the severity of which is considered equal to the crime originally committed.

While this might seem very theoretical, it has direct, tangible consequences on the types of sentences provided for by legal systems, and on prisons themselves: the facilities, the geography of a prison, the activities offered to the prisoners, the emphasis placed on punishment (solitary confinement) or personal reform (opportunities for prisoners to learn and practice crafts in workshops, to access entertainment, …), and more. In 2007, the US Department of Justice published a report finding a correlation between stricter incarceration and high recidivism rates, noting that “cognitive-behavioral programs rooted in social learning theory” conversely decreased these rates[1].

Similarly, the the American Psychological Association (APA) emphasizes that “when properly implemented, work programs, education and psychotherapy can ease prisoners’ transitions to the free world”.

However, few countries have chosen to emphasize rehabilitation, and a majority of countries now favor the punitive approach; among them, the US.

Punishment: the American example

Inside Los Angeles’ Men's Central Jail, one of the largest jails in the world. Image ©Splash/All Over Press

Inside Los Angeles’ Men’s Central Jail, one of the largest jails in the world. Image ©Splash/All Over Press

Today, the first image that springs to mind when international observers think of the US prison system is often the infamous military prison Guantanamo, and the US is widely criticized for the worrying state of its overpopulated prisons, where inmates are frequently mistreated.

However, it was not always so, and the US was once at the forefront of the rehabilitative approach. Indeed, until the 1970s, prisoners in the United States could use their time in jail to learn skills they might be able to use on the job market upon their release, as well as to work their way through mental health issues such as violent behavior or addiction. The emphasis was on getting the individual ready to find their place in society again with as few hurdles as possible.

In 1967, a commission created by President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a critical report[2], in which it stated that “Life in many institutions is at best barren and futile, at worst unspeakably brutal and degrading. . . . The conditions in which they live are the poorest possible preparation for their successful re-­entry into society, and often merely reinforce in them a pattern of manipulation and destructiveness.” The report recommended new prison facilities clearly aimed at rehabilitation, which were to include classrooms, libraries, recreation facilities, etc. Three pretrial detention facilities, the Metropolitan Correctional Centers, were built following this model in the 1970s. They included a common room where prisoners met, dined and socialized, and hinted at a new, more humane era for prisoners in the United States.

Unfortunately, an increase in crime rates caused policymakers to crash down hard on crime, while a 1974 article by Robert Martinson popularized the idea that rehabilitation programs did not produce consistent results or positive effects on the rate of recidivism. Although the findings of this article were later disproved, it was already too late, and a general shift occurred from the rehabilitative to the punitive approach in the late 1970s.

This change was fueled by what the American Psychological Association (APA) calls a “nothing works” attitude toward rehabilitation[3]. This evolution in general policy, a reaction to the perception of an increased need for security, has had negative repercussions on the quality of life of inmates. In fact, research conducted by Craig Haney, PhD, a psychologist at UC Santa Cruz, on high-security or “supermax” prisons has shown that many supermax inmates suffer from strong anxiety and negative emotions. Haney found that former supermax inmates lacked the social skills required to live a fulfilling life outside of prison.

As Haney told the APA, “This is what prison systems do under emergency circumstances–they move to punitive social control mechanisms (…) It’s a very short-term solution, and one that may do more long-term damage both to the system and to the individuals than it solves.And indeed, the shift caused an explosive increase in incarceration rates.

International rates of incarceration in 2012-2013. Source: The Sentencing Project

International rates of incarceration in 2012-2013. Source: The Sentencing Project

Comments by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) confirm this data: the US rate of incarceration is 4 to 7 times higher than the rate in other western States. In 2006, the NCCD found that the US’s incarceration rate was 738 (that is, 738 people in jail for 100,000 inhabitants), while the world average was 166, and the average in the European Union a mere 135…

This sky-high incarceration rate also reflects the fact that prisons are slowly replacing mental hospitals and becoming a dump for mentally-ill individuals who, though they have engaged in illegal behavior, really belong in a medical facility where they may receive treatment for their psychological conditions. As Thomas Fagan, a former prison psychologist interviewed by the APA, stated: “Prisons have really become, in many ways, the de facto mental health hospitals“.

Proponents of the punitive approach argue that it has caused a decrease in the rate of violent crimes. At first glance, the data seems to support this thesis:

Evolution of US violent crime rate and incarceration rate between 1990 and 2011. Source: The American Prospect

Evolution of US violent crime rate and incarceration rate between 1990 and 2011. Source: The American Prospect

The New York Times thus reports that “violent crime nationally has fallen by nearly 50 percent and property crime has dropped by more than 40 percent”.

But the two trends might actually have nothing to do with each other, as shown by a recent study conducted by Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Julia Bowling of the Brennan Center for Justice, who found that:

Increased incarceration (…) accounted for less than 1 percent of the decline in property crime this century. Increased incarceration has had little effect on the drop in violent crime in the past 24 years. In fact, large states such as California, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Texas have all reduced their prison populations while crime has continued to fall”.

Interestingly, most of the people currently locked away in local and county jails are not there because they perpetrated violent crimes, but because they committed “minor violations, including driving with suspended licenses, shoplifting or evading subway fares” (New York Times).

While in jail, individuals are often subject to violent behaviors and mistreatment from the prison personnel. Human Rights Watch chastised the US over its treatment of prisoners, noting that:

Across the United States, staff working in jails and prisons have used unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force on prisoners with mental disabilities such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Corrections officials at times needlessly and punitively deluge them with chemical sprays; shock them with electric stun devices; strap them to chairs and beds for days on end; break their jaws, noses, ribs; or leave them with lacerations, second degree burns, deep bruises, and damaged internal organs. (…) Most jails and prisons are bleak and stressful places in which few prisoners are able to engage in productive, meaningful activities. Staff seek to ensure institutional safety and smooth operations through regimentation, control, and an insistence—backed up by discipline and force—on unquestioned, immediate prisoner obedience to rules and orders”.

Finally, the recidivism rate in the US is very high (Business Insider reports that “76.6% of prisoners are rearrested within five years”), showing the limits of the punitive approach.

Meanwhile, in Norway…

An inmate at Bastoy prison sunbathes. Image ©Marco Di Lauro via The Guardian

An inmate at Bastoy prison sunbathes. Image ©Marco Di Lauro via The Guardian

Norway’s incarceration rate is currently 75 out of 100,000 people; the country counts 3,800 inmates out of a population of approximately 5 million. Norway has always enjoyed low levels of criminality, with most of the reported crime consisting in theft. Its incarceration system clearly favors rehabilitation over punishment. The life sentence was abolished in 1981 (as was capital punishment, in 1902), and the maximum prison sentence is now 21 years[4], to which additional time may be added in increments of 5 years, based on a case-by-case assessment of whether the prisoner is sufficiently rehabilitated. In spite of the 21-year cap on any given sentence, an individual may thus spend the rest of their life in prison in increments of 5 years if he or she is deemed unfit for release every time such an assessment is conducted. The Norwegians must be doing something right, because, at 20%, the recidivism rate is almost 4 times lower than in the US.

The principles which guide Norway’s prison system are perhaps best exemplified by the renowned Halden and Bastoy prisons. Prisoners can apply for a transfer to the Bastoy prison[5] five years before the end of their sentence, conditioned upon demonstrating their “determination to live a crime-free life on release[6]. On the small island which hosts the prison, prisoners live in groups of six in small houses with individual rooms and common kitchens, where they prepare their own breakfasts and dinners. Rooms include TV sets and computers as well as individual showers. The prisoners are counted and watched over by 70 members of staff. After 4pm, the prisoners are alone with 4 guards. Further, Bastoy offers its inmates training and education.

While these standards of living have spurred criticism, especially when compared to the living conditions of less privileged yet law-abiding Norwegians, the Guardian journalist who visited Bastoy wrote of the prison that it is:

A vision of the future – a penal institution designed to heal rather than harm and to generate hope instead of despair. (…) It would take much political courage and social confidence to spread the penal philosophy of Bastoy outside Norway.”

Arne Wilson, psychologist and Bastoy prison governor, told the Guardian[7]:

“In closed prisons we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking. In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”

The Halden prison also offers an interesting example of the merits of the Norwegian prison system, particularly as it is a maximum-security facility that manages to offer humane living conditions to its inmates, something which may appear contradictory or hard to achieve to outside observers but which Halden manages beautifully.

Inside Halden Prison. Image ©Trond A. Isaksen and Beate Ellingsen AS, via

Inside Halden Prison. Image ©Trond A. Isaksen and Beate Ellingsen AS, via

As The New York Time reports, “There (are) no coils of razor wire in sight, no lethal electric fences, no towers manned by snipers — nothing violent, threatening or dangerous. And yet no prisoner has ever tried to escape.Halden spends 93,000 dollars per year on each of its prisoners, which is about three times what US jails spend on their prisoners. The emphasis is placed on interpersonal relations between the inmates and the staff; the Times writes that:

“The guards socialize with the inmates every day, in casual conversation, often over tea or coffee or meals. Inmates can be monitored via surveillance cameras on the prison grounds, but they often move unaccompanied by guards, requiring a modest level of trust, which the administrators believe is crucial to their progress.”

Trust plays an essential part in giving prisoners dignity and helping them become responsible. Deprivation from such trust, a characteristic of the punitive system, may well partly explain why some systems struggle with particularly high recidivism rates.

What can the Norwegian example teach punitive prison systems in other countries?

It might seem nonsensical to compare the United States and its population of over 300 million to Norway’s small population – and, granted, solutions which work in a small, wealthy country might not necessarily be realistically applied in the United States, for both practical and financial reasons. As observed by the New York Times, Halden as one of Norway’s largest prisons hosts a mere 251 inmates, while maximum-security prisons in the United States are home to 1,300 inmates on average.

However, on a theoretical, philosophical level, the manifest merits of Norway’s choice to rehabilitate rather than punish ought to make the United States, and other countries with particularly coercive prison systems and high incarceration rates, reconsider their approaches. Indeed, while prisons will always partly serve to keep the general population out of reach of dangerous criminals, policymakers must take into account the need to ensure the safety and health of inmates, regardless of the offense they have committed, and to give them the best chances possible at a successful return to a decent and dignified life in society, as they, and everyone else, deserve.


[1] As reported by Business Insider.

[2] As quoted in The New York Times.

[3] Read full APA article here.

[4] Thus, Anders Behring Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in prison, something which outraged many outside of Norway, as Breivik murdered 77 persons in Oslo and on Utoya

[5] Read more on Bastoy in the Guardian.

[6] Ibid.

[7] As quoted in Business Insider.


One thought on “Why and How Should We Jail Criminals?

  1. I was an avid watcher of the Twitter feed during the Tsarnaev trial. I knew what the punishment options were for this defendant, and dreaded either one being applied. But I was shocked at the way the defense had to describe life without parole as being “unrelenting punishment” in solitary confinement for the rest of Tsarnaev’s life in order to persuade the jury to save this young man’s life. I truly did not realize how vengeful people would feel about this crime – horrible as it was, given the youth and the circumstances of this particular offender.

    Around the time of the Tsarnaev trial, the New York Times published their article about Norway and its prison system. I couldn’t believe the difference. I want the U.S. to be more like Norway.

    Ms. Baleo writes:

    “In 2007, the US Department of Justice published a report finding a correlation between stricter incarceration and high recidivism rates, noting that “cognitive-behavioral programs rooted in social learning theory” conversely decreased these rates[1].

    Similarly, the the American Psychological Association (APA) emphasizes that “when properly implemented, work programs, education and psychotherapy can ease prisoners’ transitions to the free world.”

    Wouldn’t it be common sense to realize that cognitive behavioral programs, work programs and education would have better results in modifying prisoner behavior than warehousing someone in a tiny cell with nothing to do all day but look at the walls?

    Thank you for writing this article.


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