Norway’s New Prisons: Could They Work Here?
By Nikola Milanovic, published August, 2010
Much attention has been granted recently to the just-opened ‘luxury prison’ in Halden, Norway. The facility, which is being touted as the most humane prison in the world, features many amenities for its 252 inmates. And after 10 years of construction and a $22.2 million price tag, government officials say it will be worth every penny. This grand experiment raises the question: would this work in the United States? Unfortunately, the answer is probably ‘no.’
Halden Prison has drawn so much attention for the many different resources and perks it offers its lucky inmates. If you get tired of strolling the facility’s 75 acres, replete with $1.5 million of murals to add to the scenery, you can retire to your own private cell to eat from your personal mini-fridge or watch your own flat-screen TV. Hungry for something more? If you step outside of your suite, with its private bathroom and barless windows (to let in more sunlight), you can walk to the quality kitchen for your 15-room section and relax on the IKEA-style sofas of the communal lounge. But don’t think life at Halden is completely sedentary: if you need exercise, you’re likely to find it at the prison gym, which comes with its own rock-climbing wall. Not enough for you? Then maybe you’ll find more diversion at the prison music studio or luxury library.
Admittedly, the abundance of amenities and perks installed for inmates seems somewhat gratuitous. There are children’s summer camps with fewer opportunities for diversion and more lackluster facilities. Architect Hans Henrik Hoilund claims that the ‘luxurious’ features of the prison are all necessary – geared at ensuring that inmates do not become re-offenders when they reenter society. “The most important thing is that the prison looks as much as the outside world as possible,” he noted, “To avoid an institutional feel, exteriors are not concrete but made of bricks, galvanized steel and larch; the buildings seem to have grown organically from the woodlands. And while there is one obvious symbol of incarceration – a 20-foot concrete security wall along the prison’s perimeter – trees obscure it. And its top has been rounded off, so it isn’t too hostile.”
This prison represents an extremely interesting experiment in social psychology and government policy: can changing the surroundings of criminal offenders affect their recidivism rates? Norway, which is already notable for its extremely low homicide and crime rates, could go from case-study oddity to institutional paradigm if Hoilund’s hypothesis is proven correct.
In light of Norway’s imprisonment philosophy, the question is posed to the United States: could a similar prison work here? Unfortunately, the answer is probably ‘no.’
Norway is remarkable for its egalitarian society and social structure. On Hofstede’s Power Distance Index, which measures the extent to which the less privileged and powerful members of organizations in a country accept inequalities in power, Norway is ranked among the lowest at 31. This ranking demonstrates the prevailing sentiment of egalitarianism and interpersonal equality embodied by Norwegian society (Malaysia, a very authoritarian society, has a PDI of 104.) Norway also has exceptionally low levels of income inequality, with a Gini Coefficient (a measure of the dispersion of wealth in a country) of 25.8.
The United States, by contrast, has a PDI of 40 and a Gini Coefficient of 40.8. Why do these variables matter? They represent, among other things, the cultural willingness of a society to grant privileges and power to its worse-off members. A society that consistently ranks high in social equality categories, like Norway, is more likely to have a citizenry comfortable with establishing such a luxurious facility as Halden Prison.
In the United States, high levels of poverty and underdevelopment in many areas (especially rural areas, where prisons are usually located) would cause massive backlash against the installation of a prison like Norway’s. It would be impossible for public officials to justify creating a detention facility for those members of society who had violated their duties to the law that would create arguably better living conditions that exist for those who didn’t break the law. The social safety net in Norway guarantees basic minimums for members of society that might make people more complacent with such a luxurious facility. Americans, by contrast, are more culturally adapted to the ideology of rugged individualism and reaping deserved rewards: people only deserve what they can afford, the American mindset implies, and they can afford what they earn. Convicted felons, in the United States, would not merit a very high standard of treatment.
Moreover, a commitment to social equality like Norway’s represents what has been called the ‘maternalistic’ instinct of government: the ideology that the government has an obligation to care for and protect its citizens in any walk of life. Americans, conversely, have been more likely through history to embrace the ‘paternalistic’ view of government, that citizens have an obligation to live up to their government’s standards, and if they do not do so, then they don’t deserve any protections or privileges from that government. This ideology is highly inconsistent with the attitude that allows for the installation of a prison such as Halden’s.
Ultimately, regardless of whether or not a luxury prison like Halden’s would work to reduce recidivism rates if installed in the United States, the American populace is not psychologically geared towards such a facility, and as such, public officials will never be able to justify constructing one here.
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