Prison officials in Pennsylvania are putting Norway’s progressive prison model to the test in an experimental housing unit nicknamed “Little Scandinavia,” according to an Oct. 2022 article in The Conversation.
Little Scandinavia is part of the medium-security State Correctional Institution Chester, located outside of Philadelphia. It features amenities common in Norway but otherwise unheard of in U.S. prisons — single cells, a communal kitchen and a fresh grocery program through a local store among others. Live plants provide cheerful decoration in communal areas with a large, colorful fish tank serving as a focal point for people to gather around.
Inspired by Norway’s prison system, the experimental unit maintains a high ratio of staff to incarcerated — one officer for every eight residents. By contrast, the prison’s other units have ratios of one to 128.
As part of their training, officers in the unit toured prisons in Scandinavia, and received instruction on how to facilitate constructive communication with their individually assigned residents.
Residents are expected to manage their own schedules for work, school, or treatment programs. Data collection is in its early stages as the program continues to expand and evolve, but according to researchers, there have been no acts of violence thus far even with access to potentially dangerous kitchen equipment.
The effort is part of the Scandinavian Prison Project, a collaboration between correctional services in Pennsylvania and their Scandinavian counterparts in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
Data to evaluate the program’s performance is being collected and analyzed by an international team of social scientists, according to the researchers in a 2021 article published in the American Criminal Law Review.
The Scandinavian prison model focuses on rehabilitation, normalcy, and humaneness with an emphasis on facilitating interactions between correctional officers and those in their custody so they can be “better neighbors” upon their release.
Commenting on Norway’s prisons after a tour, one officer said, “Everything that you saw emulated normalcy. There was nothing really other than the lock on their doors and housing units that state, you know, oh, this is a prison. [It] didn’t feel like a prison … every activity from the time they wake up to going to bed, togetherness is encouraged … The officers [are] with the inmates together [in] training and school and leisure activity, sharing mealtimes. Yes, it makes it less likely for people to commit offenses against each other. And it makes for [a] very much more relaxed environment.”
However, critics have derided this “soft” approach, saying it doesn’t punish criminals enough. Skeptics claim it wouldn’t work in the U.S. due to cultural differences and because the costs would be too high given the much larger number of people incarcerated in America.
According to reporting by the New York Times Magazine, the incarceration rate in the U.S., the highest in the world, is ten times that of Norway’s. The U.S. currently incarcerates nearly two million people in its prisons, jails, and detention centers.
When it comes to cost, the Vera Institute of Justice reported that Norway’s flagship maximum-security Halden prison spent $93,000 per incarcerated person in 2015. While this is more than the $31,000 spent on average per incarcerated person in the U.S., it is less than the $106,000 spent in California’s prisons in 2021, according to government figures.
California’s recidivism rates, however, remain in excess of 50 to 60%. According to reporting by the Detroit News, a study by the U.S. Department of Justice estimated national recidivism rates are even worse, at over 75%. By contrast, a study commissioned by the Norwegian Correctional Service found theirs were around 20%, among the lowest, if not the lowest, in the world.
This project is one the first data-intensive tests of the Scandinavian penal model in the U.S. The researchers note that, “A critical consideration of the basic nature of prison environments is often omitted from conversations about reform.”
Work designing the Little Scandinavia unit began in 2018. It was guided by Scandinavian design principles, and led by correctional officers from the prison, according to The Conversation.
The team, along with leadership from the Pennsylvania DOC, then toured prisons in Scandinavia for several weeks in 2019. The American correctional officers worked in Norwegian prisons alongside peer mentors as part of an exchange organized by the UC San Francisco-based Amend project.
The experimental unit was launched in 2020 with a group of six “lifers” who were selected from SCI Chester to serve as mentors for future cohorts, provide feedback to fine-tune policies, and develop plans for self-governance.
After a hiatus due to COVID-19, 29 more residents were added to the unit in May 2022. They were selected by lottery from the general population of the prison. In creating the unit, “Nothing was off-limits in the discussion of what should be changed and how” by the correctional team, stated the researchers in the American Criminal Law Review.
“It remains to be seen how these efforts will play out in the long-term,” wrote the researchers. “Data from this Project, and rigorous research on other efforts, can inform conversations about what the future of prison reform in the U.S. could look like.”