The numbers are clear. Incarceration rates are high (810 per 100,000 as of 2019) and have grown for decades. The number of prisons in each state is growing (1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons in 2020 versus 1,584 state prisons, and 84 federal prisons in 2000). The amount of money spent has significantly increased in that same time ($80.1 Billion in 2010 versus $35.6 billion in 2000). Other troubling statistics regarding recidivism have emerged, too. A 2014 study by the Department of Justice showed recidivism rates among releasee’s in 30 states (counting all arrests and violations, not convictions) were 76% within five years. That averages a 35-40% recidivism rate per state within the first year. There is a glaring problem if the intention of locking someone up is to deter them from recommitting while recidivism remains this high. What is going on, and why do we seem to be in a perpetual state of incarceration?
Our justice system consists of three chapters 1) Getting you in (charges and convictions), 2) keeping you in (prison confinement), 3) and letting you out (reentry, transitional center, etc.). There are flaws in each chapter, but reentry is the one we must overcome to break the cycle of imprisonment. Reentry is the last chapter of this story when we finally have the freedom to choose our next step. We are no longer at the mercy of a judge, or a corrections officer regarding where we live, move, eat, etc. However, this stage poses significant challenges for those rejoining society. With recidivism rates as high as they are, we must see what our reentry efforts lack and consider what we can do differently.
Although reentry is the last chapter of incarceration, it does not operate separately from the preceding story. Reentry starts during the detention and is heavily reliant upon how the punishing state handles confinement. For the most part, America utilizes a system that classifies individuals by security from maximum to minimum, where compliance determines security level and quality of conditions and privileges. This model is called a hierarchical model of incarceration. The practice of this model is punishment first and foremost, with rehabilitation coming second, if at all. This example, however, is not the only model of incarceration.
Norway’s prison system has gained notoriety recently for adopting a restorative justice concept. Not only does the country have some of the most humane conditions for the inmate population, but it also bolsters the lowest recidivism rate across the world at 20%. This concept is in line with the differentiated model of incarceration. Contrary to the hierarchical model, this model focuses on professional rehabilitation as soon as possible to prepare inmates for their inevitable return to society and an ethos that treats the incarcerated as people, not inmates.
The restorative justice approach utilizes three guiding principles 1. Repair, 2. Encounter, 3. Transformation. Repair addresses the wrongdoing and its root cause, i.e., social, psychological, detailed, etc., while seeing offenders take responsibility for their actions. Encounter allows the offender, the state, and those affected by the crime to communicate and discuss fair and equitable resolutions. Transformation is the steps taken by the government to change the conditions for the offender and offer classes and support to help mitigate these changes.
The government attends to the repair and transformation part of restoration by providing high-quality professional counseling and training for residents. One prison that exemplifies this is Norway Halden’s Prison, which houses maximum-security prisoners. At Halden, all employees must complete a two-year university course before being employed. The course prioritizes helping residents find jobs, find homes, and maintain close ties with their families as a part of the training. This is to help reduce the future commission of crimes and create a cooperative environment for returning citizens and the community.
This approach shows in how they address reentry as well. Even though residents are on lockdown 12 hours a day, they are incentivized to be active with their time by getting paid simply to leave their room (the equivalent of $9/day). The warden of Halden (their title is governor), Are Høidal, said in an interview with The Guardian what the reasoning behind this was:
“If you have very few activities, your prisoners become more aggressive. If they are sitting all day, I don’t think that is so good for a person. If they are busy, then they are happier. We try not to let them get institutionalized.” This motto is also infused in their daily interactions with residents.
Halden offers classes and certifications to help residents develop a skill set for work when they are released. It also provides activities that help bridge the gap between prison and the free world. Such things as a recording studio, the ability to buy food and cook, and access to a full-sized gym and yard allow residents to maintain a degree of humanity. Each room has a separate shower and bathroom, along with a fridge, desk, and even a flat-screen tv. The complex was designed by Erik Møller Architects and the Norwegian HLM Arkitektur AS to focus on inclusiveness with society, as though residents were part of a small social group. The intention behind this is to ease the transition between prison and the streets.
More elements are involved in this concept, but this summary illustrates areas the states can improve concerning incarceration and reentry. There are considerable differences between Norway and the United States, making it difficult to see how the restorative justice model could translate here. Even taking a few steps in this direction could lead to drastic changes, hopefully corresponding to breaking the cycle of recidivism. This change starts with how we approach incarceration, though. As evidence is beginning to show, punishment and isolation do not create positive and lasting results; teaching and rehabilitating do.