Comparing the treatment of prisoners in Norway and the US

If I was teaching Intro to Sociology right now, the stories about Norway’s treatment of prisoners presents a fascinating contrast with the United States:

Norway “takes the mantra of rehabilitation to an extreme,” Foreign Policy’s Robert Zeliger explains. “The Norwegian prison system takes seriously the philosophy that inmates should be treated as humanely as possible and that jail sentences should be seen less as punishment than as an opportunity to reintegrate troubled people back into society.”

Norwegians tend to see “acts of extreme violence … as aberrant events, not symptoms of national decay,” Time Magazine’s William Lee Adams reported last year. Norwegian prison guards undergo two years of training, “don’t carry guns … and call prisoners by their first names and play sports and eat meals with them,” Adams reported.

That approach — and its underlying premise that people who commit crimes are troubled who should be given a second chance and prepared to live again amongst society — can perhaps be credited with Norway’s extremely low prison-recidivism rate—only about 20 percent of those imprisoned in Norway commit a repeat crime that sends them back to prison. Recidivism figures in the United States and the United Kingdom, by contrast, are much higher– 50 to 60 percent, Time reported.

Indeed, Norway, a country of 5 million people, only has about 3,300 prison inmates, according to Time. That gives Norway a ratio of prison inmates to the country’s overall population roughly ten times lower than that of the United States.

Since the figures in this story suggest Norway’s system works (fewer prisoners return to prison, saving money down the road and improving society), why doesn’t the United States pursue similar policies? Here are a few possible reasons:

1. The United States is not as innocent. Perhaps this could be tied to the violent American culture and history.

2. The United States has a lot more people than Norway. It could be more difficult to maintain order with more than 300 million people than just under 5 million people.

3. The United States has a wider gap, wealth and status, between different groups, leading to more violence and more repression.

4. The United States is more individualistic and therefore puts more emphasis on punishment rather than restoring someone back to society.

Put together, these reasons suggest a significantly different cultural outlook between these two nations: one wants to lock up prisoners and throw away the key while the other has only a 21-year maximum sentence and wants to restore prisoners to society. Such cultural perspectives are not easy to change. Think of how US politicians are punished by pundits and voters if they happen to release a prisoner who then goes on commit futher crimes. But perhaps the pragmatic nature of budget deficits might push some more US groups to advocate for rehabilitation over retribution?

(For a more detailed description of a low-security Norwegian prison, read this.)

How to measure happiness (“prosperity”) across countries

Here is a topic just perfect for a Research Methods class discussion about conceptualization and operationalization: how to measure happiness across countries. Here is a quick summary of how the Legatum Institute measured this and found that Norway is the happiest country in the world:

With this in mind, five years ago researchers at the Legatum Institute, a London-based nonpartisan think tank, set out to rank the happiest countries in the world. But because “happy” carries too much of a touchy-feely connotation, they call it “prosperity.”

Legatum recently completed its 2010 Prosperity Index, which ranks 110 countries, covering 90% of the world’s population.

To build its index Legatum gathers upward of a dozen international surveys done by the likes of the Gallup polling group, the Heritage Foundation and the World Economic Forum. Each country is ranked on 89 variables sorted into eight subsections: economy, entrepreneurship, governance, education, health, safety, personal freedom and social capital.

The core conceit: Prosperity is complex; achieving it relies on a confluence of factors that build on each other in a virtuous circle.

Ultimately how happy you are depends on how happy you’ve been. If you’re already rich, like Scandinavia, then more freedom, security and health would add the most to happiness. For the likes of China and India (ranked 88th), it’s more a case of “show me the money.” What they want most of all? The opportunity to prove to themselves that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Some quick thoughts on this:

1. This is a lot of dimensions and indicators to consider: 89 measures, 8 subcategories.

2. The change from “happiness” to “prosperity” is an interesting one. Happiness is indeed a fuzzy term. But prosperity often refers to material wealth in terms of income or buying power. This prosperity defined more broadly: material wealth plus freedoms plus level of services plus social interactions. The Legatum Website suggests the Index is “the world’s only global assessment of wealth and well-being.”

3. I would be curious to know how comparable the data is across countries and across the organizations that form and ask these survey questions.

4. In this complexity, it is interesting to note that prosperity means different things to countries in different stages.

5. Even with all of these measures, which measures are used and how this Institute weights these particular factors would matter for the outcome. For example, the story at Forbes suggests that improving a nation’s entrepreneurial culture could make a big difference in these rankings. And the United States is ranked #1 in health care because “$5,500 a year in per-capita health spending has resulted in excellent vaccination rates, water quality and sanitation.” The Legatum Institute itself seems to put a big emphasis on business.

6. How come so many of these lists come from Forbes? Beyond the answer that Yahoo has a deal with Forbes for content, this is an interesting way to drive web traffic: top ten lists that catch people’s attention. How useful these sorts of lists are is debatable but they are often interesting and quickly summarize complex areas of life.