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How Some European Prisons Are Based on Dignity Instead of Dehumanization

Prisons in Northern Europe are actually supportive, and they see lower rates of violence and recidivism.

November 29, 2021
View the entire Punitive Excess series

This essay is part of the Bren­nan Center’s series examin­ing the punit­ive excess that has come to define Amer­ica’s crim­inal legal system.

On a cold morn­ing in Febru­ary 2013, I led a group of Amer­ican poli­cy­makers and crim­inal justice prac­ti­tion­ers — judges, public defend­ers, legis­lat­ors, correc­tions offi­cials, law profess­ors — on a visit to a juven­ile prison in east­ern Germany. We met with a group of young men, largely between the ages 18 and 21, who were serving between two to five years at the facil­ity; most had been convicted of a viol­ent offense.

Although these young men certainly looked like teen­agers or very young adults — dressed in jeans, cargo pants, color­ful T-shirts, sweat­shirts, and base­ball caps — they would certainly not be considered “juven­iles” in the Amer­ican system of punish­ment, which gener­ally caps the upper age of juven­ile status at 17. A strik­ing aspect of German law extends the ambit of “juven­ile justice” — centered on minimum inter­ven­tion and diver­sion — to young adults up to age 21. Nearly two-thirds of young Germans in this age group who are involved in the justice system typic­ally bene­fit from this. 

The young men were brim­ming with excite­ment. They were eager to show the visit­ors where they worked and stud­ied, how they decor­ated their rooms, and where they cooked their meals. They even intro­duced us to some of the anim­als they attent­ively looked after. They also had a million ques­tions for our group, but one stood out: they wanted to know what sentence they would have received if they had been convicted in the United States. It was a stark and confront­ing ques­tion.

One judge seemed almost unnerved with her own response as she told a young man serving a four-year sentence that he likely would have received 43 years for griev­ously assault­ing a fellow young person and caus­ing brain injury. When pressed why she would have doled out such a long sentence, the judge tried to summon an answer, but hesit­ated, cast­ing around for assist­ance from her fellow Amer­ic­ans. She could only say what sentence was both mandated by the law and typical of senten­cing prac­tices in her state. But she didn’t know why. The conspicu­ous dispar­ity in the scale of punish­ment revealed how absurdly punit­ive crim­inal sentences are in the United States and shattered some of the Amer­ic­ans’ assump­tions of what consti­tutes propor­tional punish­ment.

Between 2013 and 2019, I organ­ized four such study trips to intro­duce Amer­ican crim­inal justice offi­cials to several differ­ent North­ern European correc­tions systems. One of the most strik­ing encoun­ters was a Novem­ber 2018 visit to the neat and well-appoin­ted living and work­ing quar­ters of Halden Prison in south­ern Norway, a maximum secur­ity facil­ity that has received much inter­na­tional atten­tion for being the “most humane prison in the world.”

Inside of a cell at Halden Prison Reuters
The inside of a cell at Halden Prison in south­east­ern Norway.

Our deleg­a­tion was surprised not only by the phys­ical aspects of the place — open, well-lit, and bright, with lots of green spaces — but also the high degree to which the condi­tions of confine­ment were organ­ized around the normal­iz­a­tion prin­ciple, which recog­nizes the inher­ent harms of incar­cer­a­tion and requires that life in prison approx­im­ate the posit­ive aspects of life in the community. Under this prin­ciple, punish­ment is restric­ted to the separ­a­tion from soci­ety mandated by the custodial sentence itself. Condi­tions of confine­ment should them­selves be neither punit­ive nor oner­ous. Instead, the aim of the incar­cer­a­tion exper­i­ence is to enable smooth rein­teg­ra­tion of people upon release and to lead a life of social respons­ib­il­ity.

Consequently, life at Halden is organ­ized around the promo­tion of safety, well-being, and personal devel­op­ment, orches­trated to mimic life on the outside. Incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als live in private rooms with doors and private bath­rooms. Small groups share communal living spaces that include fully equipped kitchens. There is even a well-outfit­ted music studio, dubbed “Crim­inal Records,” for record­ing albums or produ­cing a radio show.

They are also encour­aged to main­tain a healthy meas­ure of autonomy and personal agency in organ­iz­ing their daily lives — they cook their own meals and are provided with an array of voca­tional train­ing and educa­tional programs, as well as vari­ous treat­ment options. They are given ample oppor­tun­it­ies to main­tain contact with family and friends, and they can all earn the award of brief peri­ods of tempor­ary leave from prison.

Mean­while, wardens — many of them trained lawyers, social work­ers, and mental health profes­sion­als — and correc­tions officers are encour­aged to develop strong social rela­tion­ships with the people they super­vise, which helps create a respect­ful, support­ive, commu­nic­at­ive, and caring envir­on­ment. Almost half of the approx­im­ately 290 prison staff are women.

Discip­line is very finely graded and discip­lin­ary meas­ures are closely tied to viol­a­tions. Least restrict­ive sanc­tions are preferred, such as reprim­ands, brief restric­tions on money, prop­erty, move­ment or leis­ure activ­it­ies, or delays in sched­uled home leave. Punit­ive solit­ary confine­ment is almost never used and is tightly restric­ted to 8 hours. Unsur­pris­ingly, viol­ence is rare.

Contrast this with the U.S. correc­tions system, where penal life and settings are ordered around the para­mount goals of “custody and order.” Amer­ican prison life is built upon the dehu­man­iz­ing rituals of induc­tion, initi­ation, hier­archy, degrad­a­tion and routine, all designed to assert author­ity and control over the bodies and lives of incar­cer­ated people. Indi­vidu­al­ity is stripped away upon prison entry, replaced by an inmate number and a stand­ard­ized, nondes­cript uniform.

Life in a U.S. prison is filled with an endless parade of secur­ity meas­ures (caging, hand­cuff­ing, shack­ling, strip and cell searches, and lock­downs) punc­tu­at­ing a daily routine marked by enforced idle­ness, the ever-present risk of viol­ence, often adversarial rela­tion­ships with prison staff, and only sporadic oppor­tun­it­ies for construct­ive activ­it­ies offer­ing rehab­il­it­a­tion, educa­tion, or treat­ment. Solit­ary confine­ment is often used as punish­ment for minor viol­a­tions of prison rules, such as talk­ing back, being out of place, or fail­ure to obey an order. Incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als in Amer­ica live in a harsh, dysto­pian social world of values and rules, designed to control, isol­ate, disem­power and erode one’s sense of autonom­ous self.

Can North­ern Europe’s “human dignity” approach to correc­tions guide Amer­ica down a path­way to help undo the degrad­ing, disem­power­ing, alien­at­ing, and brutal­iz­ing nature of confine­ment? Many argue that there are too many differ­ences — in polit­ics and law, penal philo­sophy and punish­ment culture, in crime types or rates, and system scale and correc­tional resources. Some even argue that Amer­ica is too differ­ent cultur­ally — they more homo­gen­ous, us more diverse.

But these differ­ences obscure some import­ant simil­ar­it­ies, both current and histor­ical. Many European systems, even those currently held up as models, once had much higher incar­cer­a­tion and recidiv­ism rates than they do today. And they continue to face chal­lenges similar to our own, includ­ing over­crowding, overrep­res­ent­a­tion of people with mental illness, and a grow­ing and increas­ingly diverse popu­la­tion of foreign-born indi­vidu­als.

The simple fact is that Finland, Germany, the Neth­er­lands, and Norway have all made a delib­er­ate choice to do things differ­ently. To be sure, Germany’s turn towards a human dignity approach was largely direc­ted and deeply informed by the post-war polit­ical arrange­ments and human rights consensus that emerged after World War II. Norway and Finland, on the other hand, demon­strate that a coun­try need not suffer cata­clys­mic events — geno­cide, milit­ary defeat, foreign occu­pa­tion — to induce funda­mental change.

View of the drive up to a prison with modern architecture AFT/Getty
An exter­ior shot of Norway’s Halden Prison.

In all my European trips with fellow crim­inal justice schol­ars and prac­ti­tion­ers, there were always two ques­tions on the lips of every member of every Amer­ican deleg­a­tion: “Does human dignity work?” and “How much does it cost?” Reform-minded correc­tional prac­ti­tion­ers and poli­cy­makers often require polit­ical cover, usually in the form of “evid­ence-based prac­tices” or “cost-effect­ive” solu­tions, to justify proposed changes.

But how do you study the goal of human dignity? Can you isol­ate the appro­pri­ate vari­ables to truly meas­ure cause and effect? If stud­ies came back with bad results, or if meth­ods are found to cost too much, would one stop treat­ing people humanely? While European correc­tions offi­cials are also inter­ested in “what works,” they explain that there are things they simply cannot and would not do to another person on prin­ciple, such as keep­ing people in punit­ive isol­a­tion indef­in­itely.

Instead, they point to other proof points. Aggres­sion and phys­ical viol­ence — between incar­cer­ated people, or against staff — are rare. Recidiv­ism is lower than in many other coun­tries. Pris­ons are in large part calm, quiet, even strangely congenial places with high degrees of trust between staff and the incar­cer­ated popu­la­tion. Perhaps illus­trat­ive of this was the one word the deleg­a­tion visit­ing Halden kept on hear­ing, from correc­tions officers and pris­on­ers alike: “hope­ful.” One young man was “hope­ful” he would be “better” and make his family “proud.” He was “hope­ful” that he would be forgiven by the person he hurt. He was also hope­ful that one day he could forgive himself. Prison staff, too, expressed hope — hope that their efforts will help the people they super­vise and, on a larger level, hope that they were making a mean­ing­ful contri­bu­tion to the over­all safety of the community.

When confron­ted with what they saw in vari­ous facil­it­ies, most of the Amer­ican visit­ors even­tu­ally came around, despite their initial skep­ti­cism. The spec­trum of what was possible had widened. To treat people humanely and with respect and dignity, they need­n’t wait to build a facil­ity like Halden, nor wait for a legis­lature to thickly weave a human dignity approach into the skein of their penal laws. While it may require an adjust­ment in train­ing, treat­ing people on a person-to-person basis with respect and dignity is essen­tially free.

Putting the brakes on Amer­ican punit­ive excess can and should be accom­plished by center­ing human dignity as a found­a­tional, organ­iz­ing prin­ciple of the nation’s correc­tions system. Exper­i­ments across the coun­try at the prison unit level — in Connecti­cutNorth DakotaPennsylvania, and else­where — are trying to imple­ment this human dignity ethos. But these tent­at­ive steps will not likely stop the domin­ant punish­ment culture that helped give rise to mass incar­cer­a­tion. Funda­mental changes to the “soul-chilling inhu­man­ity” of Amer­ica’s pris­ons, as one judge has described it, will certainly require much more.