The Nature of Incarceration
With the success of the new Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” popular Norwegian prison iFunny trend and American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF), penitentiary systems worldwide are now being placed in front of judge and jury.
Bastoy Prison on the island of Bastoy, Norway, is nothing like you expect a prison to be. When users scroll down the iFunny feature, they see prisoners playing instruments, working out with guards in the yard and watching TV in cells that look uncomfortably like the dorm room I just paid thousands of dollars to live in. And it’s safe to say that the feature does not exaggerate. This facility is one of Norway’s “open prisons,” where rehabilitation is prioritized over punishment. Each of the 115 prisoners has his own room in houses that could accommodate six, each equipped with a community kitchen where prisoners can prepare their own breakfasts and lunches. At 8:30 a.m., prisoners must report to their paying jobs, in which they are able to do anything from gardening to farming to chopping and gathering firewood for the houses. Because Bastoy employs its workers, it is one of the cheapest prisons in Norway. Only three or four of the guards stay on the island at time, and none of them carry firearms.
The Bastoy story first came to America via VBS.TV after Anders Breivik massacred 77 people in July 2011 at a Norwegian youth political rally. Bastoy was discussed because toward the end of his sentence (which will most likely be 21 years because Norway has neither a life-sentence nor death-sentence policy), Breivik will have the opportunity to apply to be transferred to Bastoy like many of Norway’s most serious offenders have done in the past. Many Norwegians, who tend to be indifferent toward Norway’s progressive prison system, are now enraged with the idea that a mass murderer like Breivik will have the opportunity to enjoy the luxuries of the open prison system practiced in Bastoy.
Maybe they’d prefer Breivik to be sent to a place like the overcrowded EMCF in Meridian, Miss., which is currently facing a lawsuit from the ACLU on behalf of the prisoners. There are certainly no luxuries offered here. There are arguably no rights offered here. According to The Guardian, the ACLU reported that EMCF houses many mentally ill prisoners who are not only being denied the treatments they need but also being ignored even when they express suicidal tendencies. Juveniles are being housed with adults, rats are running rampant, rapes and stabbings are going unaddressed and unreported, and basic necessities like working toilets are not being provided.
Which policy is more appropriate? One that is lax and arguably unsubstantial or one that practices inhumane but thorough (to put it nicely) punishment? What’s worse: too much or not enough?
It’s hard to argue for television and beaches for a guy like Breivik, but the statistics speak for themselves. According to CNN’s John Sutter, Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at only 20 percent (as calculated in 2010); Bastoy is at 16 percent. This is a significant difference from the three-year re-offense rate of 43 percent (in 2011) in the United States. The Norwegian policy is to rehabilitate the criminal so that he can return to society a better and crime-free individual. That is why prisoners in Bastoy get many freedoms and luxuries: it simulates the environment they will live in after they are released.
Another policy of Norwegian penal system is that the sentences are much shorter than they are in America. According to CNN, “more than 89% [sic] of Norway’s jail sentences are less than a year.” Meanwhile, in the U.S., tough-on-crime tactics like mandatory sentencing and the three-strikes policy have been practiced since the late 1960s. This extensive punishment plan is flawed and inefficient. The Guardian reported that the U.S. already spends $50 billion on our correction systems annually, and longer sentences aren’t bringing down crime rates because so many crimes go unpunished. Many criminals walk free or on probation, and the unlucky few who are convicted serve overly extended sentences in unsatisfactory conditions. Keep in mind that most of the criminals in jail are there for nonviolent crimes, usually involving drugs. I am justifying neither drug use nor trafficking, but do these crimes deserve punishments like rat-infested living conditions and rape? I think not. Prisoners have rights, too.
“Losing liberty is sufficient punishment—once in custody, we should focus on reducing the risk that offenders pose to society after they leave prison,” Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, Bastoy’s governor and former psychologist, explained to The Guardian. Punish the crime, not the criminal.