Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Nordic prisons less crowded, less punitive, better staffed

Prisons in Sweden, Norway and Finland have a smaller average inmate population, bigger cells and broader access to social…

A van believed to carry convicted mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik arrives at the Ila prison outside Oslo. EPA/FREDRIK VARFJELL

Prisons in Sweden, Norway and Finland have a smaller average inmate population, bigger cells and broader access to social services than jails in English-speaking countries, a 10-year study has found.

The authors of the study, who have published their findings in a book called Contrasts in Punishment: An explanation of Anglophone excess and Nordic exceptionalism, studied a vast amount of data on prisons in Sweden, Norway, Finland, New South Wales, New Zealand and England.

The researchers analysed annual reports from correctional services dating back to 1850, government legislation, penal codes, white papers, academic articles on prisons, media coverage and conducted interviews in about 60 prisons.

“In the Nordic countries, the punishment is deprivation of liberty and you don’t need to impose extra punishment. That was not the case with the Anglophone countries,” said Dr Anna Eriksson, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Monash University, who co-authored the book with Professor John Pratt from the Victoria School of Wellington.

Based on 2010 data, England’s average prison population is 608, New Zealand’s is 458, then New South Wales' is 324. By contrast, the average prison population is 92 in Finland, 87 in Sweden and just 73 in Norway.

In Oslo, Norway, a typical cell is 8 x 8 metres for a single prisoner, whereas in Wellington, New Zealand, two prisoners share a cell measuring 4 x 2 metres, the study found.

Every cell in the recently-opened high-security Halden Prison in Norway features a television, en suite bathrooms, unbarred windows and designer furniture.

“Guards are unarmed and prisoners complete questionnaires asking how their prison experience can be improved,” Dr Eriksson said.

Scandinavian prison guards have longer and more rigorous training than those in Anglophone countries and often mix with prisoners in the same canteen area. Scandinavian countries have a male guard to female guard ratio of about 3:2 in their male prisons, compared to as much as 4:1 in male prisons in English-speaking countries.

Inmates in Nordic countries access the same social services as the broader population, including free education through to university and free medical treatment.

“The research shows the current cultures that exist have very long historical roots. It has a lot to do with class relationships, the value and function of education, the roles of religion in the late 19th and the early 20th century, and the role of the central state in everyday governance,” said Dr Eriksson.

“Whereas Nordic cultures have very flat class structures, they have a strong hierarchical class structure in England that spread to the other English-speaking countries and that’s reflected in the attitudes to prisons.”

Dr Eriksson said “the role of experts (as opposed to politicians and lobby groups), and the role of the media, have played a major role in maintaining the focus on humane and inclusive approaches to punishment.”

“No government in the Nordic countries has been elected on a law and order platform, calling for harsher sentences – it doesn’t resonate well. But here in Australia, it’s a real political football.”

There are no private prisons in Nordic countries, she said, which enjoy some of the lowest incarceration rates in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Dr Hilde Tubex from the University of Western Australia’s Crime Research Centre said Scandinavia was well known within criminology circles for it’s progressive approach to punishment.

“They have managed for many years now to keep their imprisonment rate low with no repercussions for the crime rates or recidivism rates. In fact, they are doing better than we do,” she said.

Smaller institutions where conditions – apart from the deprivation of liberty – mirror the outside world as much as possible help prepare inmates for release, she said.

“John and Anna have been criticised by some Scandinavian prison researchers, who have said ‘Maybe you are painting this picture a bit too rosy and that some conditions, like for remand prisons are not so great’,” said Dr Tubex.

“But John and Anna have made the point, and I think they are right, we are not ignoring the fact that imprisonment is still a very unpleasant experience but the way prison centres are run in Scandinavian countries, they are a lot less unpleasant than they are in the Anglo Saxon world.”

Dr Tubex said a lot of research into prisons focused on the US and the UK.

“US and UK researchers tend to assume that what happens in the US and the UK is what is normal and it’s a matter of time before it happens everywhere. That’s obviously not the case.”

Dr Tubex described the decade-long study as “a very interesting piece of research.”

“It’s based on very in-depth research on contemporary and historical sources. I think their analysis is very reliable and of a high standard. It’s of great value to us to understand how Scandinavian people run their prisons and maybe learn some lessons.”

Articles also by These Authors

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

33 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    hi
    interesting article.

    i can see the comments against the idea of a "hotel" like prisons arriving soon.

    it would seem to me to be axiomatic that if you treat inmates harshly and in a overly authoritarian manner, you will reduce any chance of rehabilitating criminals.

    i'm not suggesting that a % of prisoners will be less than perfect examples of society. some will be brutal and anti-social. but reacting in kind will only serve to reinforce bad behaviour.

    it would appear to be a debate…

    Read more
    1. Russell Camel Wattie

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Stephen, I heard at some point in time that the rate of "Literacy & Numeracy" difficulties in general population of Australia is in the region of 20%, (this takes into account new migrants etc) in our Prison population the figure is 80%. That would make a straight correlation between poor education and offending behaviour likelihood. One of the major changes that I would oversee in our prison system is, on admission a test of literacy & numeracy, if there was a problem the prisoner would be 'offered…

      Read more
    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Russell Camel Wattie

      hi russell

      i like your education idea, but for me the "stick" scenario is a tad of an over-reaction.

      sure take away priveliges, but a severe reaction to me would only serve to reinforce violence and bitterness in the prison system.

      to me the last thing you want is an inmate leaving the prison with a hardened, bitter attitude. i believe this leads to entrenched criminal activities, with the community put at risk.

      perhaps as a punishment play them classical music, or have them watch bambi or toy story over and over.

      report
    3. Steve Phillips

      Nurse Practitioner

      In reply to Russell Camel Wattie

      I have 5 years experience of working (as relief medic) in the max security prisons of WA. Causarina, Hakea, Bandyup, and to a lesser extent Acacia. I know that the prisons have registers of prisoners with chronic communicable diseases, such as; HIV, Hep C and Hep B.
      HIV is very uncommon. I experienced only 3 prisoners with HIV or AIDs in that 5 years. Hep C is rampant, I cannot recall the exact stats but it reprents a high propotion of the prison muster.
      The factors for these results are many but…

      Read more
    4. Russell Camel Wattie

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Hey Stephen, How many are going to take the option of going out into the yard and break rocks? In Holland all they do is place those that refuse to partake in a kind of isolation regime, which for some is easy for others is hard.
      Your suggestion of Classical music or bambi or Toy Story over and over is purile and you knew that already!

      report
    5. Russell Camel Wattie

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Steve Phillips

      You perhaps need to read my post a bit slower and take it in. I knew i would get responses like yours and had full intent to answer them as they came so here is yours.
      With regard to Drug abusers, I agree 100% about the Methadone program, all it does in my eyes is maintain the 'customers' for the prison system if nothing is done to treat the prisoners health problem and you just maintain that addiction for the duration their incarceration then all you have done is ensure a repeat offender.
      This…

      Read more
    6. Steve Phillips

      Nurse Practitioner

      In reply to Russell Camel Wattie

      I sorry you feel that I was arguing with you. What you have said makes a great deal of sense and for the most part does contain rational solutions to the recidivism we experience.
      Im glad you have given us the benefit of your experience here.

      report
    7. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Russell Camel Wattie

      hi

      it was an attempt at humour (obviously a failed attempt).

      but there was method in my madness. in several cities in victoria they play classical music in public cbd areas. the idea being that it helps to induce a calming effect on those who may otherwise get up to mischief.

      i also saw in a doco , that painting prison walls PINK helped to reduce angst levels of prisoners.

      so perhaps bambi may not be a bad idea after all.....

      report
    8. Russell Camel Wattie

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Steve Phillips

      Steve I probably jumped a bit hard as this is one of the subject that I believe there is a solution to, but continue to see the only argument put forward is the law and order, 'nail them up' it is frustrating to know there is a better way, that is to know it by experience rather than by book or study.
      I would be nice to see some kind of serious attempt to fix this but so frustrating to know that so long as we have a media that is more interested in sensational headlines than genuine contributing to the improvement of the Australian experience we will continue to suffer misguide Politicians who only react never act, in response to polls as much as they all say they don't pay attention it the the mainstream popularity polls that drive them all.

      report
    9. Steve Phillips

      Nurse Practitioner

      In reply to Russell Camel Wattie

      You have hit the nail on the head.
      What is required are some politicians from any camp who can gather evidence and ideas, evaulate, construct a reform package valid in the context of Australian experiences and social make up and then explain and deliver.
      The selling of any reform is difficult and lately we have not seen any good examples of salesmanship from our leaders.
      This is a potencially unpopular reform idea and not one that will generate votes without appealing to emotions. Thats why it would require some conviction and the ability to explain it rationally and logically.

      report
    10. Robert Tony Brklje
      Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

      retired

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Also we should not forget the correctional services officers, there is a reason they are refereed to as such and not as prison guards.
      More soundly designed prison will generate far better working environment for those officers who in turn will be able to achieve better rehabilitation outcomes.
      Prisons designed as punishment centres also damage the psychology of prison guards, turning them into maladjusted dangerous and abusive individuals.
      Creating dangerous, hostile and psychologically destructive environments affects all those involved, not just the inmates.
      The punishment prison model is basically designed around cost and outcomes beyond feeding the sadistic need of knee jerk reactionaries are completely ignored.
      Even worse is the new for profit private prison complex where insanely enough recidivism is a desired profitable objective and prisoner are brutalised by the cheapest prison guards those corporations can hire.

      report
    11. Steve Phillips

      Nurse Practitioner

      In reply to Robert Tony Brklje

      Robert, you need to go and visit a prison.
      I cant recognise the prison you describe. The privately run prison I worked in for a few shifts was well designed. Clean and well equiped. The cells were of normal size for any prison I had visited and they were for the most part well appointed without being in any way luxurious.
      The prisons whether Govt or private have ne need to encourage recidivism. They are all over stretched for room and resources. So theres no conspiracy to be found there.
      Your…

      Read more
    12. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Russell Camel Wattie

      hi russell

      just to let you know, on the news last night (melbourne) there is now another council employing loud classical music at a major shopping centre to try and disrupt the gathering patterns of people.

      though this is not what i was really saying, more that it may soothe the nerves and relax inmates.

      i would imagine (and seriously) is that punk rock and head banging music would pump the adrenalin and cause angst levels to rise.

      report
    13. Robert Tony Brklje
      Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

      retired

      In reply to Steve Phillips

      I would prefer to see correctional services facilities to go all the way over to treating criminals as people suffering from social disorders and in need of treatment. Of course bound with that, is the principle of no cure, no release, harsh but sound. With pressures put on the facilities to achieve cures but also not to release persons who will commit criminal acts.

      report
    14. Steve Phillips

      Nurse Practitioner

      In reply to Robert Tony Brklje

      My experience is that most of the prisoners at Bandyup Women's Prison would instantly become 'lifers'.
      Diagnosing people who commit crimes with 'social disorder' is far too close to the Soviet system of declaring anyone who dissented 'mentally ill'. I feel very uncomfortable that that would even be debated.

      report
  2. Jon Wardle

    Chancellor's Research Fellow, Faculty of Health at University of Technology, Sydney

    Interesting article. I'm reminded of the Frank Abignale autobiography "Catch Me If You Can" where he compares in detail his time spent in a Swedish prison to his time in a French prison. In Sweden access to education and social services inspired him to better his life, whilst his time in France nearly inspired him to end it.

    report
    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Jon Wardle

      The authors have looked at the wrong ends of the respective histories. While Australia has been revolutionised from a relatively monoracial/lingual nation in 1950, in 2013, it is among the most diverse on earth. OTOH, in 1950 Sweden/Finland/Norway looked like a nation of Aryan Youth Clones - it's even hard to tell the sexes apart, compared with any other people on earth. By 2010, the Angloworld had basically built the next stage of human civilization, while they can just breeding more and more blonde…

      Read more
  3. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    " In Oslo, Norway, a typical cell is 8 x 8 metres for a single prisoner, whereas in Wellington, New Zealand, two prisoners share a cell measuring 4 x 2 metres, the study found.

    Every cell in the recently-opened high-security Halden Prison in Norway features a television, en suite bathrooms, unbarred windows and designer furniture. "

    8x8 metres!, really?
    Like that is nearly as big as my little cottage with a loft bedroom and no ensuite.

    You would have to wonder if this is standard re what…

    Read more
    1. ian brown
      ian brown is a Friend of The Conversation.

      retired

      In reply to Greg North

      With incarceration rates of around one quarter of ours, the Scandinavians clearly spend far less a percentage of GDP on prisons than we do - notwithstanding what may seem to us to be a "ridiculous standard of luxury". Treating prisoners decently appears to be one of the reasons for this lower rate. If we are unwilling to learn from these societies, we condemn ourselves to continued mediocrity.

      report
  4. Russell Camel Wattie

    logged in via Facebook

    This is basically what I campaigned on in my 2010 Senate Election campaign. My experiences in the Dutch prison system compared to my experiences in the Australian prison system, showed me there is a better way out there.
    What you have not mentioned in this article is the reoffending rate in these countries. I am certain you will find that it is in the vicinity of the lowest in the world. Now surely that is the sign of a successful prison system, not the high numbers the government are continually…

    Read more
    1. Steve Phillips

      Nurse Practitioner

      In reply to Russell Camel Wattie

      You are quite right, the administration of the law cannot be driven by emotion. Quite apart from the risk of abuse it cannot be maintained by those who administer justice on our behalf. Prison officers and all those who deal with criminals are human and cannot be asked to deliver our desires for retribution by proxy.
      Gaol and the administration of justice has to be dispassionate and humane. Privileges are fine as long as they are a reward for good behaviour and are withdrawn for breaches of prison…

      Read more
    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Steve Phillips

      hi

      one of the game changers in recent history has been the introduction of "private" prisons.

      this has had a deleterious effects on the US penal system, and adding the commercial aspect to the issue raise many questions.

      report
    3. Steve Phillips

      Nurse Practitioner

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I cant comment on the impact of private administration of prisons. I worked a few shifts at Acacia and didnt like it. Not because they were penny pinching or because they lacked security but because it was too far from home and they had medical/nursing practices I took issue with.

      report
    4. Russell Camel Wattie

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Steve Phillips

      Very true Steve, if we can't learn from our own mistakes and those of others then we are doomed to repeat them.

      report
    5. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Russell Camel Wattie

      Russell, the characteristics of the populations from which come the majority of the prison population in the Anglosphere are so completely different from the criminal populations in Finland/Norway/Sweden, there is nothing to learn from them.

      report
    6. Russell Camel Wattie

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Kim whilst you are completely right in saying the characteristics of the populations are completely different, to say there is nothing we can learn is a clear sign of a closed mind that can learn nothing. I have no doubt that there are some things we can take from their systems. If we don’t try we are condemning ourselves to accept a continually failing system. I for one will not accept defeat on this, I will continue to attempt to influence thought to the possibility that there is a better way, if only we are prepared to look and learn.

      report
    7. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Russell Camel Wattie

      Russell, I am quite serious, it is better not to grant any money for research proposals, which clearly show the grant-seeker is not ready. Any intention to compare Scandinavian prison system outcomes with Australia, must first produce evidence that the researchers have a professional sociologist's grasp of the great differences between not only the different societies, their histories, but also deep knowledge of recent history. At a minimum must be able to produce on demand chapter and verse of the incredible and intricate differences between the Australian and the Scandinavian prison populations. Not once in this article did the authors even hint at the bleedin obvious: In 2013, Australia is among the most racially/ethnically/linguistically/religiously diverse on earth. OTOH, in 1950 Sweden/Finland/Norway looked like a nation of Aryan Youth Clones.

      report
  5. Alex Cannara

    logged in via Facebook

    And, maybe they're not run by private businesses for profit either, as we unwisely have done in the US. Marijuana-possession laws here make lots of $ for private prisons and their investors (even Bain Capital :).

    report
  6. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Ask around and see if you can find any agreement in Australia as to what prisons are meant to achieve.

    Are they there for punishment, for rehabilitation, or to keep certain people out of circulation, or to scare other people from committing crime?

    If we cannot agree what we are trying to achieve, no wonder we do it poorly.

    report
    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to John Harland

      of course john it could be all four reasons.

      perhaps we still have a hankering for the old style, brutal and punitive system.
      bread & water and a good whack with a truncheon now and again.

      personally there are a lot of people i'd like to keep out of circulation, but first they'd have to be convicted of a crime.

      high on my list would be those scumbags who swindle working people (and others) out of hard-earned money and abscond to the bahamas, or even queensland.

      then there are the current…

      Read more
    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      seriously tho what do you do with the habitual criminals, the scum who prey on people and are aggressive and mean beyond redemption.

      they cost society millions - they cause heartache, they kill, steal, maim, brutalise.

      can even the most charitable among us have a kind word to say about them.

      those snarling and angry, pugilistic and threatening types we see in the media.

      they give no quarter to other people........they have no mercy, no kind words, no redeeming qualities.

      what do we do with them?

      they wont be redeemed by social workers or psychologists, they go in bad and come out worse.

      report
  7. George Harley

    Retired Dogsbody

    Not everyone that ends up in jail is guilty. A perusal of the Innocence Project website should disabuse anyone of that ridiculous belief. An innocent man spending 35 years in jail? Read it and weep.

    report
  8. Jane Andrew

    Associate Professor at University of Sydney

    We have high rates of recidivism in Australia. It would be good to consider the Scandinavian model if this could help us lower the number of people going in and out of prison. Also, I suspect they are all government run and state owned. No doubt there are significant cultural differences, but we need to be much more willing to experiment with policy that is working in other parts of the world. I suspect we could also borrow a lot from Finland's educational model.

    report