In the same Sunday issue, The New York Times Magazine published two articles that drew some not-so-subtle conclusions about the American prison system, about its problematic rise in numbers, about its entrenched recidivism, and about its inherent contradictions to the American themes of freedom, opportunity, and hope. Of the two articles, one of them was a character study of ADX in Colorado, “America’s Toughest Federal Prison.”

9eI3evj8S3vm4uV9_400x0Since opening in 1994, the ADX has remained not just the only federal supermax but also the apogee of a particular strain of the American penal system, wherein abstract dreams of rehabilitation have been entirely superseded by the architecture of control.

…Robert Hood, the warden of ADX from 2002 to 2005, told me that when he first arrived on the campus, he was struck by “the very stark environment,” unlike any other prison in which he worked or visited—no noise, no mess, no prisoners walking the hallways. When inmates complained to him, he would tell them, “This place is not designed for humanity,” he recalled. “When it’s 23 hours a day in a room with a slit of a window where you can’t even see the Rocky Mountains—let’s be candid here. It’s not designed for rehabilitation. Period. End of story.”

The yin to this article’s yang was overwhelmingly less gloomy, but, of course, took place in Scandinavia. It is the story of Halden Prison, a (smaller) maximum-security prison that does things a lot differently. For all the “too good to be true” and “sure, but not in America” moments that readers like me use to resist these kinds of stories, Halden’s method is mind-blowing, if not a startling signpost in the desert landscape of a no-escape situation like ADX.

Many of Halden’s prisoners have committed the same crimes that prisoners of American high-security prisons have committed. More than half are convicted of violent crimes, but Halden’s stance on such crimes couldn’t be more different from the American way. Their theory is “Better out than in,” and you can see it in the way that things are run. Each released inmate is promised reintegration to society, with the help of securing a home, a job, access to social safety nets like health care, education and pensions. This is all a part of the Norwegian brand of justice, which views inmates in the penal system as human beings who are merely having their freedom temporarily revoked:

“This punishment, taking away their freedom — the sign of that is the wall, of course,” Gudrun Molden, one of the Halden prison’s architects, said on a drizzly morning a few days after I arrived. As we stood on a ridge, along with Jan Stromnes, the assistant warden, it was silent but for the chirping of birds and insects and a hoarse fluttering of birch leaves disturbed by the breeze. The prison is secluded from the surrounding farmland by the blueberry woods… It is an ecosystem that evokes deep nostalgia in Norway, where picking wild berries is a near-­universal summer pastime for families, and where the right to do so on uncultivated land is protected by law.

Norway banned capital punishment for civilians in 1902, and life sentences were abolished in 1981. But Norwegian prisons operated much like their American counterparts until 1998. That was the year Norway’s Ministry of Justice reassessed the Correctional Service’s goals and methods, putting the explicit focus on rehabilitating prisoners through education, job training and therapy. A second wave of change in 2007 made a priority of reintegration, with a special emphasis on helping inmates find housing and work with a steady income before they are even released. Halden was the first prison built after this overhaul, and so rehabilitation became the underpinning of its design process. Every aspect of the facility was designed to ease psychological pressures, mitigate conflict and minimize interpersonal friction. Hence the blueberry forest.

…“A lot of the staff when we started out came from other prisons in Norway,” Stromnes said. “They were a little bit astonished by the trees and the number of them. Shouldn’t they be taken away? And what if they climb up, the inmates? As we said, Well, if they climb up, then they can sit there until they get tired, and then they will come down.” He laughed. “Never has anyone tried to hide inside. But if they should run in there, they won’t get very far — they’re still inside.”

29Norwegian_ss-slide-QV6Y-slideThe blueberry forest thing was, to me, a bit excessive, and if it excited me at all, I was worried that it was the indulgent side—it just sounds cool to be “for” a prison that is forested, that retains the magic of its natural landscape, blah, blah, blah—but there’s more to it for Norwegians: this whole walking-through-the-forest-picking-blueberries thing is part of what makes Norwegians Norwegian. Keeping this in prison allows prisoners to keep on being Norwegian. The same thing for waffle makers. Inmates each have access to waffle makers and kitchenettes and grocery stores and refrigerators. Did I mention this is a high-security prison?

At the same time, it’d be easy to airbrush this into CandyLand and say we all need love. There’s no denying or confuting the presence of the law here. The place is still walled-in. Everywhere an inmate goes, there is the reminder that he/she is living in a confined place. But, unlike the American system, this punishment has not redefined whether or not he/she is a human being, even a human being living in Norway. So, even in the experience of the law’s punishment, the inmate is not alone.

The article points out that the atomic unit of this experience, of walking the line between detention and rehabilitation, is the singular relationship between officer and inmate. While “static security” (read: law) tends to elicit rebellion and paranoia, “dynamic security” (read: relationship) tends to retain humanity and respect:

The Correctional Service emphasizes what it calls “dynamic security,” a philosophy that sees interpersonal relationships between the staff and the inmates as the primary factor in maintaining safety within the prison. They contrast this with the approach dominant in high-­security prisons elsewhere in the world, which they call “static security.” Static security relies on an environment designed to prevent an inmate with bad intentions from carrying them out. Inmates at those prisons are watched at a remove through cameras, contained by remote-­controlled doors, prevented from vandalism or weapon-­making by tamper-­proof furniture, encumbered by shackles or officer escorts when moved. Corrections officers there are trained to control prisoners with as little interaction as possible, minimizing the risk of altercation.

29mag-volleyball-blog427Dynamic security focuses on preventing bad intentions from developing in the first place. Halden’s officers are put in close quarters with the inmates as often as possible; the architects were instructed to make the guard stations tiny and cramped, to encourage officers to spend time in common rooms with the inmates instead. The guards socialize with the inmates every day, in casual conversation, often over tea or coffee or meals. Inmates can be monitored via surveillance cameras on the prison grounds, but they often move unaccompanied by guards, requiring a modest level of trust, which the administrators believe is crucial to their progress. Nor are there surveillance cameras in the classrooms or most of the workshops, or in the common rooms, the cell hallways or the cells themselves. The inmates have the opportunity to act out, but somehow they choose not to. In five years, the isolation cell furnished with a limb-­restraining bed has never been used.

While the article’s main spread of the article’s discussion lands around the term “rehabilitation” and its potential, the Christian vocabulary word here is mercy. Not in the judicial sense of a full pardon—prison is always prison—but in the experienced sense of life despite one’s offenses.

The “redicivism rates” in Norway are some of the best in the world. And while statisticians will argue that their numbers are only relatively better, that’s not what Norway’s after anyways. Instead, they ask a different question: “What are the principles of humanity that you build your system on?” As anthropologist Ragnar Kristoffersen says,

“We like to think that treating inmates nicely, humanely, is good for the rehabilitation. And I’m not arguing against it. I’m saying two things. There are poor evidence saying that treating people nicely will keep them from committing new crimes. Very poor evidence…But then again, my second point would be…if you treat people badly, it’s a reflection on yourself.” Kristoffersen cited a line that is usually attributed to Dostoevsky: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”