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.)