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Look to Norway?

Look to Norway? Well …

By Kirsti Nymo and Sven-Erik Skotte, from KRUS (University College of Norwegian Correctional Services)

 

The Norwegian Correctional Service has been highly reputed for its well-equipped prisons and well-educated prison officers with good opportunities for rehabilitation work.

Now there is a new political order. For several years, there has been a drive to cut costs and maximise efficiencies. This year’s budget claims that six lower security prisons are to be closed down – and replaced by Electronic Monitoring (EM). We want to point at two serious consequences following these budget cuts:

 

1: Budgets are now so low that there is a real danger that rehabilitation work is no longer possible in many prisons.

2: More prisoners must serve their sentence under a higher security regime than necessary – which is not in accordance with the legislature’s original intentions when it comes to the execution of prison sentences.

 

The task of the Norwegian Correctional Service

The task of the Norwegian correctional service is stated in the Execution of Sentences Act, Chapter 2 of which says: “The purpose of the sentence is to prevent new criminal acts, to reassure society, and within this framework, to ensure satisfactory conditions for inmates”.

From the Operations Strategy 2014-2018 we also copy the following statement: “The Norwegian Correctional Service’s social mission is to enforce remand orders and sentences in a manner that reassures society and attempts to prevent recidivism. Our job is to help offenders change their criminal behaviour through their own efforts”.[i]  This is the ideal – now to reality.

 

Lack of staff-prisoner interaction

The prison officer is the key figure in reducing re-offending; when the number of prison officers is decreasing, an important means to prevent recidivism is lacking. When budgets are cut to less than a minimum needed for keeping the prisons going, the consequences are alarming: vacancies are left open, sick leaves are not compensated, time for structured interaction is scarce – and rehabilitative programmes are practically not offered. The Parliamentary Ombudsman of National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) regarding prisons is deeply concerned about the lack of out-of-cell activities and human contact, which is explained as a result of a staff shortages, due to budget cuts. This too often results in prisoners being left alone in their cells without meaningful activities. During weekends in particular, more prisoners are locked up and left to languish in their cells for 22 – 23 hours a day.    

 

Why closing down lower security prisons is wrong

The decision to close down open prisons is not in accordance with the legislature’s original intentions when it comes to the execution of prison sentences.[ii] In the preparation to the Norwegian Execution of Sentences Act, the Norwegian Ministry of Justice pointed out that transferring prisoners from high security prisons to lower security prisons is a part of a systematic progression of prisoners which is essential in order to facilitate a return to society. The Ministry of Justice therefore proposed to extend the access to serve prison sentences in open prisons, both by letting prisoners be directly committed to a prison with a lower security level and as a part of their gradual transfer to society. Hence the approved budget is de facto contrary to the legislator's original intention of gradually release to society.

Sentences in Norway are relatively short; last year 55 % of the released prisoners were released within 90 days, and 86 % within one year.[iii] Accordingly, only a minority of the prisoners constitute a threat to public safety, and should therefore not serve their sentence in a high security prison.  

The key element in a sanction is the deprivation or reduction of liberty. European Prison Rules state that “restrictions placed on persons deprived of their liberty shall be the minimum necessary and proportionate to the legitimate objective for which they are imposed”.[iv] The harmful effects of the loss of liberty are well documented and should therefore be reduced as much as possible.  The offender shall be placed in the lowest security regime possible.

As stated earlier, the government is now preparing to close down lower security prisons and replace them with extended use of EM. So far so good; EM is really low security. But EM is not suitable for all prisoners. “It is a precondition for execution of the sentence outside prison that the convicted person shall have a permanent residence and be employed in a form of work, training or other measures” (Execution of Sentences Act, Chapter 16). In other words, EM is suitable for convicted persons with relatively well-organised lives. Many prisoners do not have a permanent residence or a job; often they have severe substance abuse problems, hence they are not in the target group for EM – and the implication will most likely be that they will end up in higher security prisons than they need to be in.  

           

Juveniles should not serve their prison sentence in high security prisons

In Norway we have two prisons for children between 15 and 18, and we have appropriate community sanctions for the youngest offenders. But both the Beijing Rules and the European Rules for Juvenile Offenders subject to sanctions or measures emphasise that young adults, aged 18-21, should also benefit from the same variety of educational measures that are provided for juvenile offenders below the age of 18.[v] The reason for this is that they too are in a transitional stage of life when it comes to their developmental problems as young adults. Many other countries have taken this evidence-based policy into consideration in their juvenile justice legislation and have extended this period of transition.

When a young person under the age of 21 is sent to prison, it is of the utmost importance that the loss of liberty is restricted to the least possible degree, with special institutional arrangements for confinement. Priority should be given to “open” over “closed” institutions and the facility should be of a correctional or educational rather than prison type.[vi] A friendly and safe institutional environment plays an important role in contributing to the well-being of the young person and the overall aim of their education and re-integration into society. Due to the budget cuts, we are afraid that this also will lead to an increase in young offenders serving their sentences under a stricter regime than necessary.     

 

Concluding remarks

It is a general principle that prisoners should not serve their sentence under a stricter regime than necessary. The reason for this is, as mentioned in the commentaries to European Prison Rules, that the lower the level of security, the more humane the treatment is likely to be. Secondly security is expensive and the higher the level, the greater the cost. Therefore, it makes financial sense not to keep prisoners in a higher security category than is necessary. The Norwegian government is planning to close down six low-security prisons, which offers a high degree of normality. We consider this wrong as it implies that more prisoners have to serve their sentence in high security prisons with low staffing, impoverished prison regimes and isolation.

Given the importance of relationships between prisoners and prison staff, we do not believe that reducing prison staff and closing lower security prisons are sustainable means of controlling costs in the long run. A humane and effective prison regime depends on skilled and experienced prison officers, who have the necessary resources to do their job well. For the time being this is not the case; more prison officers now look upon themselves as merely key holders. This is far from good enough for a country that wants to be a world leader in protecting human rights. 

 

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Nymo, K., Skotte, S., (2019) Looking to Norway? Well... Available at: https://www.compen.crim.cam.ac.uk/Blog/blog-pages-full-versions/look-to-norway (Accessed [date]).

logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).

  

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