Take Two #43: What Purpose Our Prisons
By Kyra-lin Hom
This week I've been blessed enough to host a friend I haven't seen in over a year. We were room mates in college for nearly all four years and have never quite seen eye to eye, but one of the great things about friendship is that you don't have to.
She and I first met while touring our potential college as part of the incoming Honors Program freshman tour. We sat next to each other only once, during a half-hour bus ride, and decided in that time 'uh-uh, anybody but this girl.' I was a pure city girl still in the height of my fishnet and heavy make up phase. She was a small town Texan right down to her freckles and cowgirl boots. Of course, lo' and behold we ended up as randomly assigned room mates once the school year started. The rest is history. We might have come from very different places, but we were both bold women with an aversion to keeping our mouths shut (still are). Turns out that bold and upfront are great traits for roomies to have.
Skip ahead five years to this last week. One of the things I love about this friend of mine is her perspective. I feel like I've been constantly picking her brain this week because a Catholic, theology MA point of view isn't something we generally have in abundance out here in the Northwest. One of the topics that rose to the surface was the prison system. We were going back and forth on the right to life and ended up talking about the death penalty. She doesn't believe in it. I do.
We didn't linger here, though. We broke down our arguments into the why's and why not's and realized that, regardless of the origins of our opinions, we both believe something is wrong with the prison system. As far as we are both concerned, having to choose between death and an indefinite stay in inhumane circumstances is no choice at all. So why are those the options?
Well, the dominant attitude (and mine falls somewhere under this umbrella too) seems to be that prison is about punishment and retribution. Based solely on our judicial system, you would think this world doesn't favor second chances. In America, our prison system seems almost designed to produce hardened reoffenders (the recidivism rate in the US being nearly 70%) and our laws allow for extreme prejudice against anyone with a criminal record, making it difficult for anyone to get a fresh start. The new 'Jim Crow Laws' so to speak. Yes, they are criminals. They did wrong – sometimes evil levels of wrong – and they should be punished. This is what our storybooks have taught us from day one. But especially with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, is this attitude practical or sustainable? A lot of research money would say no.
The best example of a completely alternative approach to prison and their prisoners is the Bastoy Island Eco Prison in Norway. Here on this isolated but very beautiful self-sufficient island, prisoners are granted something given them almost nowhere else: trust. Yes, this is the prison famously mocked for its beaches, horseback riding, sport courts, conjugal overnight rooms, dorm-like living situations and quality food. For obvious reasons, many people dismiss this prison as being too cushy to be effective. But with a recidivism rate of around 16%, I'd say it's quite effective indeed.
See, Norway has a maximum sentence of 21 years. It doesn't matter if someone slaughters whole families, they will only get a maximum sentence of 21 years in prison. This means that the people of Norway must confront the idea that criminals will some day be released back into society. This forces their prison system to focus on rehabilitation not punishment.
On Bastoy Island, prisoners are not only treated like but are also expected to act like people. They're retreat-like perks only come in exchange for a hard days' skilled work just like in the 'real world.' If they don't come into the prison with any usable skills, they are taught them there. My favorite example of this is a former bank worker turned cattle herder. After all, what use does a farm-style island have for a banker? According to him, being and working on Bastoy gave him self-confidence for the first time in his life.
Above all, the prisoners learn how to be functioning members of a non-criminal society. Several inmates even work alongside the small prison staff. And if you think the freedom encourages prisoner misbehavior, you're very wrong. Bastoy has a strict one-strike-and you're-out policy. No one on the island wants to go back into the regular system so disruptive incidents are extremely rare.
The lesson here is that those of us living in worlds of right and wrong and just desserts might need to rethink our philosophies. As uncomfortable as it makes me to admit, our old-fashioned concepts of harsh negative reinforcement aren't actually doing society any good. We might get a little thrill out of punishing the bad guy, but that's all we're getting.
As the Bastoy Prison governor, Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, says, “There will always be a need for conventional high-security prisons for people who are simply too damaged. But those people are few and far between.”