A better way to manage prisons | NC Newsline

In recent years, the global debate on the purpose and effectiveness of prisons has undergone a significant shift. Rather than focusing solely on punishment and isolation, countries like Germany and Norway have pioneered a more therapeutic approach to incarceration. By prioritizing rehabilitation, human dignity, substance use and mental health treatment, as well as practicing the principle of normalcy and limiting isolation, these countries are establishing prisons that aim to foster rehabilitation and produce good neighbors. Furthermore, their progressive models serve as a beacon of hope for reforming prison systems around the world, forcing them to live up to what it means to be the Department of Correction.

As I learned on a recent tour I was able to visit of facilities in Hamburg, Germany and the Norwegian capital of Oslo, these prisons are designed to recognize that the primary goal of incarceration should be the restoration of both the individual and the community. . Rather than perpetuating a cycle of dehumanization, these countries prioritize the preservation of human dignity within the prison environment.

In Germany, “Vollzugshilfe” is practiced, guidelines which emphasize providing comprehensive support to people to facilitate their reintegration into society. Similarly, in Norway, the focus is on creating conditions that allow incarcerated people to take responsibility for their actions, fostering a sense of personal responsibility and encouraging pro-social behaviour.

Among the strategies that both systems employ for these purposes:

  • Emphasizing substance use and mental health treatmentRecognizing the link between substance use, mental health, and criminal behavior, the facilities I’ve seen prioritize comprehensive treatment programs within their prison systems. This “therapeutic communities” approach provides evidence-based therapeutic interventions to address substance use disorders while emphasizing community support and peer involvement.
    In Oslo, I learned that the emphasis is on individualized mental health treatment programs that address the underlying causes of offending behavior. By tackling these issues head-on, both nations aim to break the cycle of recidivism and support incarcerated individuals to become contributing members of society upon release.
  • “Normal” building and environment The German and Norwegian systems also adhere to the code of “normality” within their prisons, aiming to replicate the conditions and routines of daily life as closely as possible. In Hamburg, this has been exemplified by open housing units, where inmates can access communal spaces and engage in meaningful activities. Similarly, in Oslo I witnessed an emphasis on providing people in prison with education, employment and vocational training opportunities, in an effort to ensure a smoother transition into society. By normalizing prison environments, these countries seek to promote social inclusion and reduce the stigma associated with incarceration.
  • Limit isolationBoth the German and Norwegian systems also recognize the detrimental effects of prolonged isolation on individuals’ mental well-being and the potential for successful reintegration. Consequently, they limit solitary confinement to the shortest possible duration and only impose it in exceptional circumstances. Instead, these countries prioritize alternative approaches such as structured activities, therapy, and interventions to promote positive behaviors. By avoiding the excessive use of solitary confinement, both systems prioritize the mental health and well-being of incarcerated people and seek to foster an environment conducive to rehabilitation.
  • Intense Corrections Officer training – THE The German and Norwegian systems also show an understanding of the crucial role prison officers play in creating a positive prison environment that facilitates rehabilitation. Both countries prioritize in-depth training for prison officers to equip them with the skills to interact effectively with prisoners and foster a culture of respect, empathy and support. By investing in officer training, both have created a workforce that better understands the intricacies of rehabilitation and is better prepared to help make people into good neighbors.

Of course, none of these observations should be read to imply that serving a prison sentence in Germany or Norway is a pleasant experience or that both systems are without problems. The loss of one’s liberty is invariably deeply traumatic wherever and whenever it occurs, and neither system is immune to failures such as recidivism.

But especially for a nation like the United States which imprisons such a large percentage of its population with so often poor results, the two European systems serve as role models showcasing the transformative power of restoration, substance use and mental health treatment, a commitment to “normalcy,” limited use of solitary confinement, intensive correctional officer training, and above all, respect for human dignity. By prioritizing rehabilitation and creating more supportive prison environments, both countries are taking significant steps towards developing good neighbors and ultimately reducing the demand for their services. Nations around the world would do well to follow their example.

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