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What I Learned Touring Prisons in Finland and Norway

Alex M. Johnson

In these countries, everyone—from the government officials down to the prison guards—holds these truths to be self-evident, that inmates are people, that prisons exist to rehabilitate people and that social services, not prisons, will solve our social problems.

In December 2019, I spent one week touring prisons in Finland and Norway, witnessing what a reformed criminal justice system looks like in action. I was there because justice reform is a priority grantmaking area for Cal Wellness—we believe that mass incarceration in our country is a public health crisis.

There were 23 of us on this tour, which was organized by Impact Justice, an organization that’s at the cutting edge of reform innovation in the justice system. Among us were state and local officials, formerly incarcerated people, social justice leaders, attorneys, philanthropists, journalists and authors, all determined to understand how these two countries did the impossible: over the last two decades, they reduced their prison populations, sharply cut their reoffending rates, all the while shifting the focus of their penal and criminal justice systems from punishment to rehabilitation and healing.

I was excited even though these two countries are vastly different from the United States and from California in particular, especially in terms of how homogenous their population is compared to ours—more than 90 percent of their residents are white Europeans.

“Here’s the proof of concept,” I kept thinking after each eye-opening conversation with various correctional officers, inmates and policymakers. There are numerous lessons that the United States and California can learn from this system. Thankfully, thanks to the tremendous work of advocates, system-impacted individuals, and policymaker allies, we are on our way to transforming systems of mass incarceration and providing people with second chances where many did not have a first chance.

We Must Change Our Core Values

This hypothesis was confirmed within days of my arrival in Norway: We must change the values we currently hold as self-evident truths when it comes to people who commit a crime. Without changing our values and our guiding beliefs, we will struggle to bring about reform.  And as Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, says, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.”

In these two countries, everyone—from government officials down to the general public and the correctional officers—shared the same values and had the same vision for their justice system. “Life inside shall resemble the life outside as much as possible,” is one of the principal tenets of the Norwegian Correctional Service. “If you treat someone as a monster, they’ll behave like a monster,” a Norwegian correctional officer told us. Because their values were articulated and collectively embraced, these two countries were able to successfully implement them through policies, systems, procedures and behaviors.

Nordic Value #1: Inmates are people.

In Finland and Norway, they have a fundamental belief in the humanity of all people. Inmates are not stripped of their humanity or dignity when they walk through the prison doors. They’re seen as people who have done something criminal, not as criminals. The difference isn’t purely semantic—it’s a difference in values. While one centers people, the other erases them.

When you look at inmates and see people—human beings just like yourself who have made a mistake, and sometimes an egregious one—then the rest of the justice system responds accordingly and rationally.

When you look at inmates and see people, then it’s common sense that the inmates would receive the same kind of health insurance as everybody else. Then it makes sense that the correctional officers would see themselves as social workers, role models, coaches and mentors rather than as jailers. Then it’s logical that the purpose of a prison would be to rehabilitate people and prepare them to leave more resilient than when they came in.

Conversely, in the United States, we see people who have committed a crime as less than human. That’s why we are able to lock our inmates in overcrowded prisons, place them in solitary confinement for years, feed them spoiled food, offer them zero education, rehabilitation or mental health support. A big part of this dehumanization of inmates in our country comes from our unique history of racism, slavery and Jim Crow. That’s why, to change how we see our inmates, we will need have a frank discussion about race. We cannot have race-neutral conversations about justice reform. Race is intrinsically interconnected to our justice system.

Nordic Value #2: Prisons exist to rehabilitate people.

In Finland and Norway, they believe that the purpose of prisons is to rehabilitate people. “A prison is a learning environment for a life without crime,” a Finnish official told us. In Norway, their justice system’s motto is, “What Kind of Neighbor Do You Want?” After all, a majority of the inmates will return to their communities after serving their sentence. So they ask themselves, Who do we want to be living next to us? Do we want a person who’s healed, healthy and prepared to contribute to our community, or someone who has become a “monster” because he was treated like one?

In these countries, people who have harmed the community in some way are not ejected from or rejected by the community. Instead, they’re the responsibility of the community; prisons are considered a part of the community.

Because they believe that prisons are learning environments and places for rehabilitation, inmates in Nordic countries receive mental health support, job training and education and drug addiction support. They have well-structured gradual release programs based on good behavior. They are able to attend school and receive an education. They get job training and skill development to help them find work after they’re released. Thirty percent of prisons in Norway are open, which means that the inmates can leave every day to work.

What’s more, they place people in facilities close to home, so they can stay connected to their loved ones, and reintegrate more easily upon release. Conversely, in the United States, some 65 percent of people in state prisons are locked up over 100 miles from their families, making visitation difficult, if not impossible for low-income folks.

Nordic Value #3: Prisons will not solve our social problems. Social services will.

In Finland and Norway, prison is the place of last resort. House arrest is more common. That’s because they know how harmful institutionalization is for people. Even though they construct their prisons with rehabilitation as the end goal, the ultimate goal for the Nordic policymakers is not to make better prisons; it is to prevent people from getting placed in the first place.

In those countries, there is a public health approach to corrections. They’re looking for root causes of crime and are constantly asking themselves, Why are some people offending? What is making them offend? Their solutions are holistic and they look like better schools, safer communities and better mental health and substance abuse services. Ultimately, these countries are investing the majority of their financial resources into social services instead of spending most of their money on the backend, propping up prisons, the way we do in the United States. Instead of disappearing people, they’re trying to disappear social problems.

I was shocked to hear that in Norway, they do not incarcerate their youth, kids under 18 years of age. In 2019, the total number of incarcerated youth in Norway was 77. In comparison, in the United States, nearly 60,000 youth are incarcerated on any given day (and in California, there's a worrisome trend in an increased number of youths who are sentenced to the juvenile equivalent of state prison in California, the Division of Juvenile Justice). Because their goal is prevention, Norway does not criminalize adolescent behavior, or confine their young people at such a fundamental time in their lives—when their brains are still developing. They don’t want to disrupt their education, cut them off from their loved ones and expose them to worse trauma and violence than the kind that pushed them to commit a crime in the first place.

Conversely, in the United States, we are building more prisons these days than universities. We lock up our young people in adult prisons with life without parole. We need to reject the notion that prison and incarceration replace the need for government to invest in services that cause communities to be resilient and to thrive.

In California, we've made tremendous reforms over the last decade, but there is much more work to be done. I’m honored that Cal Wellness has a long history of supporting justice reform and standing in solidarity with many California organizations and leaders who are working at the cutting edge of justice reform in our state. Meet some of those visionary organizations and please consider supporting their work.

Together we can and we will progress towards our goal of closing prisons and shifting from punishment to prevention, rehabilitation and healing. It's possible—Norway and Finland have done it and so will we.

Alex Johnson
Program Director Alex M. Johnson

Alex M. Johnson is a program director at The California Wellness Foundation, where he manages a grantmaking portfolio focused on creating healthier environments, preventing gun violence, developing community-led approaches to community violence, transforming the youth justice system, and advancing healing and wellness.

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