The failed American prison experiment

Nigel Sumerlin


Bastoy prison island off the coast of Norway is a jarring example of the stark difference between American punishment and Norwegian rehabilitation.

At Bastoy, prisoners are housed in small bungalows rather than cells, which are outfitted with space for six inmates, kitchens, televisions, computers and integral showers. Prisoners must apply to be admitted after serving a portion of their sentence in a different Norwegian prison with positive behavior and signs of a desire to live reformed lives. Convicts earn real money and are offered the opportunity to earn relevant skills by working at a number of different jobs on the island. Since only one meal each day is provided at the dining hall, inmates must use their earnings to purchase food from the prison’s grocery store and cook it themselves.

Although Bastoy is a more comfortable prison than many in Norway, other aspects of the Norwegian prison system show the country’s commitment to treating prisoners like human beings instead of animals.

With the exception of war crimes and genocide, Norway limits judges to maximum sentences of 21 years. This includes Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer who took the lives of 77 people in 2011 in a catastrophic bombing and shooting. Despite his massive death toll, Breivik will be reviewed by Norwegian judges after his sentence in order for them to determine if he is suitable to enter society. In Norway, mass murderers and rapists alike are treated as human beings, albeit sick ones.

This is the only way to heal.

For time immemorial, societies have dealt with criminals by removing their freedom. This has been justified through reasoning that they need a “timeout,” are a menace to society or don’t deserve the privilege of liberty.

While many societies have shown a soft spot for murdering their uncooperative citizens, our government follows the example of Mother England and incarcerates offenders with ease. Mandatory minimum sentences, three-strike laws and the War on Drugs have filled both private correctional facilities and the pockets of their owners.

The result is that we spend $80 billion each year to keep our prisoners barely alive; one in 108 adults are behind bars and although the United States makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, we house 25 percent of its prisoners.

One would figure that if forcibly detaining dangerous individuals for extended periods of time was able to reform them into model citizens, the U.S. would see emptier prisons and safer streets.

Yet we obviously have not. Seventy-five percent of U.S. prisoners return for a second visit, showing that prison is either a lot more pleasant than most of us think (spoiler: it isn’t) or it does a dismal job reforming convicts. In addition, many who have done time for nonviolent offenses such as marijuana possession or crimes against the state have their lives ruined by even touching this absurd and toxic form of “rehabilitation.”

So is prison itself the problem, or are we just making a mess of the process?

The small country of Norway would tell us that it's not prison, it's us.

Norwegian prisons focus on rehabilitation rather than retribution. Convicted criminals tend to leave correctional facilities corrected, and they rarely return. They key to their success is that inmates are treated like human beings, and in turn act that way.

In the U.S., this style of treatment is shocking if not unbelievable. We are so familiar with a system that dehumanizes and destroys individuals unfortunate enough to fall into it. In the home of the free we are all too comfortable revoking the liberty of those who disobey the rules, whether they are dangerous or not. And when the dangerous individuals—the rapists and the murderers and the pedophiles—act like animals we hold them up as proof of why we should put more people in prison.

We’ve tried punishment.

Over and over again, we’ve attempted to fix broken people by beating the cracks out of them. How much longer will we ignore history, psychological research (see the Stanford Prison Experiment) and examples of effective strategies such as Bastoy so that we may indulge the destructively satisfying urge to destroy those who hurt us rather than heal them?

Nigel is a sophomore pursuing a double major in history and psychology.