States put Norway-style prison reforms to work in U.S.

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

U.S. prison officials and academics are increasingly looking to Norway's approach to incarceration for ideas to reduce recidivism rates that are higher in the United States than anywhere else in the world.  

North Dakota and Oregon have been front-runners in implementing Norwegian-style reforms, said Brie Williams, director of Amend: Changing Correctional Culture, a nonprofit based at the University of California San Francisco.

A U.S. Justice Department study estimated that half to more than 75% of inmates released from U.S. prisons end up back in the system, while a study commissioned by the Norwegian Correctional Service found about 20% of Norway's released inmates return to crime. It's hard to compare recidivism rates between the countries because of gaps in data and varying research methods.

The North Dakota Department of Corrections erected two modular buildings to provide single bedrooms for inmates in their Transitional Housing Unit, one of innovations based on the Norwegian correctional  model.

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American prison directors who have toured Norwegian prisons with the Amend nonprofit group at the University of California San Francisco are taking a second look at how inmates are managed in their states.

"In the United States, we build efficient prisons, but not effective prisons," said North Dakota Director of Corrections Leann Bertsch, who has visited Norway twice since 2015 to study its prison system.  

"The opportunity to see things that are different than we’re doing is something that every correctional system should engage in," Bertsch added. "A lot of the principles (in Norway) didn’t seem that far-fetched to apply in our system."

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Bertsch toured four Norwegian prisons in 2015, along with representatives of North Dakota's human services department, legislature and judiciary. The trip was organized and funded by Amend. The group has financed similar tours by delegations from Hawaii, Oregon, Rhode Island, Idaho and Alaska.

North Dakota has experienced success so far, Bertsch said.

The prison system has been able to reduce by two-thirds its use of segregation, or isolating inmates from other prisoners for disciplinary reasons, after implementing methods of prisoner discipline they observed in Norway, she said. They involve primarily  "dynamic security," the Norwegian approach of using communication and relationship-building to influence inmate behavior. 

The state has maintained the reduction by providing intensive services to the inmates who were formerly isolated, she added.

"We give them every opportunity to change their behavior and get back in general population," Bertsch said. "And then once they go back into general population, there’s a lot more support put around them, so that they maintain their behavior." 

Two North Dakota corrections will return to Norway this year to job shadow corrections officers at Halden Prison and strengthen their dynamic security skills. 

"We started doing a lot of rapport-building activities, unity events where our staff are engaging in activities with the population, shuffle board games, card games, basketball games, a cookout, or whatever," Bertsch said of the new approach.

In Oregon, prison officials noticed immediate improvement in prisoners housed in a behavioral housing unit after implementing approaches they observed in Norway, said Cyrus Ahalt, associate director of Amend. 

The unit at Oregon State Penitentiary houses 40 seriously mentally ill inmates with histories of violent behavior while in custody.

Oregon corrections officials and staff who visited Halden Prison decided to replicate a Resource Team approach they observed in Norway. The Amend program brought Norwegian correctional officers to the United States to train members of the Oregon team, Ahalt said. 

After implementing the new approach, the unit achieved a long-sought goal of providing residents with an average of 10 hours in programming and 10 hours in unstructured recreational time outside of their cells each week, Ahalt said.

North Dakota Corrections Director Leann Bertsch.

"Within one week of our training ... eight of the most profoundly isolated residents were engaged in rehabilitative programming out of their cells, some for the first time in years," he noted.

"Participating staff called it the most rewarding experience of their careers and a turning point in their professional lives."

North Dakota also implemented changes for prisoners nearing their release date.

Inspired by what state officials saw at Bastoy Island, a Norwegian island were minimum security inmates live in cottages, the prison system erected two modular housing units at a minimum-security prison. One contains bedrooms for 36 inmates involved in the system's work release program, and the other has a living room and other communal areas.

The prisoners have their own rooms with a bed, desk and small fridge, and they share a bathroom with one other inmate.

The North Dakota Department of Corrections erected two modular buildings to provide single bedrooms for inmates in their Transitional Housing Unit, one of innovations based on the Norwegian correctional  model.

North Dakota's prison reforms have not escaped controversy. Some prison employees quit. Others couldn't accept the changes and were shown the door.   

"Former employees that left or were told to leave, they’re probably the most vocal about it, saying, 'It’s too lenient,'" Bertsch said.

"Anytime you’re making it less punitive, the naysayers will say you’re making it less safe — and that’s absolutely untrue.

"...If there is an assault in our system, it’s usually because we have a very seriously mentally ill individual."

Amend has used the experiences of North Dakota and Oregon to develop a model for other states. The model will be published in a peer-reviewed journal later this year.

The Norwegian model leads to much calmer conditions in prisons, said Sami Abdel-Salam, an associate professor of criminal justice at West Chester University of Pennsylvania who has studied Norway's Halden Prison.

"It helps to reduce the tension within prisons," Abdel-Salam said. "That could help benefit in terms of lowering the levels of violence in American prisons."

“Healing Justice” is a Detroit News project made possible through a fellowship with the Association of Health Care Journalists funded by the Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit foundation focused on health.

Twitter: @kbouffardDN

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