The Norden is a documentary series made in 2014 first aired by Finland’s national public broadcasting company YLE. It presents the Nordic welfare model from an outsider’s perspective. The first episode looks at the Norwegian prison system. It captures so much of what’s wrong with “tough” prisons like those in America and most importantly it shows a better alternative. It promotes a prison model based on rehabilitation, not revenge. You can watch it for free on archive.org:
Prison reform is a subject I’m very passionate about. It is an urgent moral necessity to address the pointless suffering that goes on in tough prisons. What’s wrong with tough prisons? Simply put, tough prisons are based on falsehoods, disregard for historical data, incoherent philosophy, and confused ideas about human psychology. The term fractal wrongness is a perfect descriptor.
In The Norden documentary, retired prison warden James Conway of Attica State Prison in New York travels to 4 Nordic prisons to see how they operate. Now I don’t want to pick on him in particular but I do want to use him as an example because he perfectly embodies everything wrong with American prisons. So for the rest of this post I’m going to take quotes from Mr. Conway in the documentary, explain what he gets wrong and why the US and other countries should immediately transition to Norwegian-style prisons.
“New York State and the department of correctional services are not responsible for you being an inmate. And that means you put yourself here. Don’t blame the department. Don’t blame the staff. Don’t blame the judge. Don’t blame society. It was your actions that put yourself here…A lot of folks unfamiliar with prisons think that it’s the prison’s job to make sure this person comes out as a law-abiding citizen and those of us in prison realize that’s not the case.” – James Conway
This quote is based on bad philosophy. Specifically it’s based on the believe that people possess libertarian free will. I’ve already talked at length about how free will is incoherent. For someone to have free will and be ultimately responsible for their actions would be circular.
This bad philosophy regarding free will is related to confusion about the self. For example, in a sense there’s not really such a thing as a chair. There are legs, a seat and armrests and when they are put together a certain way in space and used for sitting, we call the result a “chair”. But if you only stand on it to reach high places it might be a “step stool”. Point being “chair” and “stool” are mere nouns. They aren’t the real thing because reality isn’t words. The same is true of the nouns “I”, “self”, “ego” and “person”.
To say of inmates “It was your actions that put yourself here.” and the thinking that it’s their responsibility to change themselves is to be confused about the self. Who is the “you” that put yourself there and who is the “you” that got put there? Who is the “you” that is doing the changing and who is the “you” that is being changed? It makes no sense. Of course people can change but there’s a contradiction in assigning ultimate blame to inmates.
I don’t want to make this whole post a lecture about free will and self. For that you can read 2 sections of my other post on free will responsibility and justice. For those of you who think I’m just intellectualizing to make excuses for inmates, I’m not. People should admit their past mistakes. They should make an effort to improve. They just shouldn’t be thought of as ultimately responsible. Maybe there is a sense in which they are responsible, but not ultimately. Moving on.
James Conway explains to Jarmo Haavisto, Assistant Director of Hameenlinna Prison, how cells are searched in Attica:
James Conway: “I would search the bed first. Totally top to bottom it comes off and then leave that in a pile and then go around the room systematically and put everything on the bed that I’m frisking, so that when she came back in all of her property would be right here on the bed.”
Jarmo Haavisto: “So you don’t put them back where they were?”
James Conway: “That’s her job.”
Apparently the ultimate responsibility for your own actions doesn’t apply to guards. According to Conway it’s okay for guards to search a cell displacing all the inmate’s belongings but then it’s the inmate’s responsibility to put all the items back. It seems self-contradictory. As a proponent of ultimate responsibility for your own actions why wouldn’t it be the guard’s responsibility to put all the inmate’s items back given they’re the one who displaced them? Seems like a double standard.
Hyperfixation on Punishment
At Svartsjö minimum security prison there was an incident where an inmate didn’t consent to being on camera by putting a hood over his head.
Journalist: “James seems a bit absentminded. He just can’t get over the incident with the inmate during our arrival.”
James Conway: “Would this be a good time to talk about the guy with the white hood this morning?”
Prison staff: “Yeah sure.”
James Conway: “We would never allow an individual to cover their face…he would be called in and he would be given some kind of a sanction for that episode this morning. If he likes to walk every day, he wouldn’t walk for 5 days.”
Journalist: “What if it’s right to be more therapeutic? Would you have happier prisoners if you tried it you know their way?”
James Conway: “No.”
Journalist: “Why not? Why are you so sure?”
James Conway: “Our prisoners would try to manipulate the system. They misinterpret kindness for weakness.”
I’m no prison warden but I’m sure the prisoner wasn’t just trying to make an issue. The audio in the film presents a man who just didn’t want to be on camera and didn’t trust the film crew to blur out his face. He wasn’t acting violently. Yet Mr. Conway’s response to this was that the inmate shouldn’t be allowed to go on walks for 5 days. Conway later video calls a colleague who laughs about the idea of inflicting harsh deprivation on the inmate for an extremely minor dispute. This leads us straight into the next topic.
Lack of Compassion
“The inmate has given up his right to be in society by violating the law, by violent crime, by committing murder, by committing rape. That person shouldn’t be coddled, shouldn’t be given a situation where we’re concerned about how they would feel if somebody was to walk by their cell and see them on the toilet. Who cares how they feel.” – James Conway
Who cares how they feel? Someone made a mistake so it’s okay to disregard their feelings? It’s okay to treat them as subhuman because they broke the law? Isolating them from society is done because it’s necessary to protect society. But not giving them privacy while using the toilet? If that’s not cruel and unusual punishment then I don’t know what is.
Inmates are human beings. It doesn’t matter what they’ve done. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect just like everyone else. It’s that simple.
One of the reasons we have more people in jail in the United States than any other country is we throw people in jail for things that wouldn’t justify incarceration elsewhere. US prisons are filled with nonviolent drug offenders, victims of the war on drugs which should never have been waged in the first place. There wouldn’t be as many violent drug offenders either if not for the war on drugs.
Mr. Conway doesn’t mention any of that. Like a true radical individualist, he shrugs off societal influences, such as poverty and poor education, which we know based on evidence push people into a lives of crime. Instead he cherry picks the criminals we have the least sympathy for. That is, murderers and rapists.
Disregard for Evidence (Dogmatism)
Mr. Conway claims we shouldn’t care about how inmates feel and they shouldn’t be coddled. But how does he know that? What logic did he use to take the step from “The inmate has given up his right to be in society by violating the law, by violent crime…” to “That person shouldn’t be coddled, shouldn’t be given a situation where we’re concerned about how they would feel…”? How did he go about determining that?
People with Mr. Conway’s attitude would probably say it’s self-evident. Isn’t it obvious they shouldn’t be treated well? After all they committed a crime. To that I would give the same general answer I give to all moral questions: What do you care about?. I care about minimizing the number of people in prison. I care about people getting better even if that means we have to treat them better than their victims would approve of. I care about the evidence and results from the Nordic prison system as compared to other systems.
It really comes down to your values. If you value living in a society where where you don’t have millions of citizens going through the rotating door of prison, poverty and crime more than any other country, where you don’t punish and degrade people for the sake of it, where people getting better is more important than revenge, then the best working example of that is the Nordic prison model and you should want to shift other countries closer towards it.
Just ask Christer Karlsson, an ex-criminal that served 27 years in a Norwegian prison:
Journalist: “And is that a good thing that they are soft?”
Christer Karlsson: thinking…“Yeah. I think it’s good, to behave to treat people with human thinking. I think it’s good. Because if you are treat them badly they be badly more badly by themself. Do some more awful crime when they come out.”
If you only value retribution, punishing people even though all the evidence shows it causes them to become more hardened criminals in the future making society less safe with mass incarceration and recidivism paid for at the taxpayers’ expense, inmates becoming more antisocial not getting the help they need just to fulfill a dogmatic fantasy based on nothing and in contradiction with our current understanding of the brain, the self, modern psychology and sociology, then punishment is the way to go.
When Mr. Conway saw a unit inside the maximum security Halden prison he said this:
“I would think the crime victims would be opposed to this type of living arrangement for the criminal.” – James Conway
To use the same words for victims that Mr. Conway used to describe inmates: “Who cares how they feel”. I thought it was the department of correctional services, not the department of victim’s feelings. We should try to cultivate compassion for those who have wronged us, not be bent on getting revenge.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
“When you have an unlimited budget their models fine and it’s all wine and roses…” – James Conway
The budget is actually be a valid concern in the small scale. American prisons are overcrowded and underfunded. The Nordics have better social services than the US and universal healthcare which means they have better resources to handle mentally ill people before they end up in prison, prison is treated more as a last resort, they don’t lock up so many people for victimless crimes and their people are better educated giving them better opportunities.
There is much to be said about differences in the cultural environment between the US and the Nordics. Certainly poverty, economic inequality and mental illness needs to be taken more seriously in the US if we want to have as much success as Nordic prisons. Some people use that as an excuse for why the US can’t have Nordic prisons. I strongly disagree. America is the richest country in the history of the world. We can absolutely fix our social problems, but there needs to be the political will to do so.
Besides even within the social constraints of the US both North Dakota and Oregon have already started implementing the Nordic philosophy in their prisons and seen positive results and Amend.us is working to import the Nordic prison model into the US. There’s no good excuse not to fix our broken prison system. “Change is hard” is not a good reason. Inmates are hurting and there is a moral imperative to remedy that.
All or Nothing Thinking
“I think when the incident happens down the road they’re gonna have to make some changes. Everybodys not going to go along with their treatment plan that we’re doing this to help you. Somebodys gonna go against the grain. There’s always a case.” – James Conway
Of course “everybody” won’t go along with the prison changes. But in Norway the recidivism rate is 20% while it’s 75% in the US. There’s several reasons that’s not a perfectly fair comparison. Some of them I mention above when I talked about cultural differences. But as North Dakota and Oregon have shown, it’s not all the fault of the social environment in the US.
Mr. Conway is basically saying that 4 out of 20 prisoners reoffending isn’t better than 15 out of 20 because it’s not 0. His implicit message seems to be “If the Nordic system fails even for one inmate then it’ll have to revert to being a tough US prison”. Only someone who is obsessed with punishing every slight would fail to appreciate the relative success of the Nordic system. Clearly Mr. Conway is obsessed with punishing every slight because he thought it was appropriate to force an inmate to stay inside and not walk for a week just because he didn’t want to be on camera.
I’ll end this post with a quote from Russian novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
“A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.” – Dostoyevsky