The State Correctional Institution-Chester (SCI-Chester) hosted the warden of Norway’s Halden prison, Are Hoidal, last Monday afternoon to get insights from what many media outlets call, “the most humane system in the world.”
Jordan Hyatt, a Drexel criminologist, facilitated Hoidal’s visit to the area that included SCI- Chester and other Pennsylvania prisons during the week. The purpose of the visits was to share perspectives and discuss how to best deal with crime and corrections.
“Regardless of what side of the pond you are from, all correctional leaders understand that we are in the human business,” said SCI-Chester Superintendent Marirosa Lamas on the key lesson learned. “Modeling the behavior that we want to see is as important as imposing the sanctions. I’d venture to say even more so.”
According to National Public Radio (NPR), Norway spends $90,000 a year to house each prisoner, three times what is spent on inmates in the United States, and the recidivism rate is less than 30 percent, half of what it is in the U.S.
Norway, a country of 5.2 million, has just 3,900 prisoners; Pennsylvania, a state of 12.8 million, has 48,000, plus thousands more in county jails. In Norway they have more corrections staff than inmates (the smallest prison only has a population of 13). The average prison sentence in Norway is eight months.
“I think there are too many people in prison here. It’s expensive. It’s good business to have them out and rehab them,” said Hoidol. “We want to make them better when they leave and make a better society.”
Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel called the European model more evolved with restorative and rehabilitative aspects.
However, Hoidal noted 30 years ago it faced many problems including escapes and drug use. They refocused their efforts on training staff and core values, which includes openness, respect, professionalism and commitment.
“We have prisons that don’t look like prisons,” noted Hoidel. “Every inmate in Norway will be released. Every inmate will come out and be our neighbor. What kind of neighbors do we want?”
“As we start reducing the population it has to be about outcomes,” said Wetzel. “When we treat people better, they do better. We want people to leave better than they came in. There is not one county in Pennsylvania we are not going to release people back into.”
Wetzel described his visits to European prisons a few years ago as “transformative.” He said the approaches Norway takes to incarceration, such as the “human aspect” and the trained, skilled staff, were “not foreign concepts.”
“The staff is spectacular here (at SCI-Chester),” commented Wetzel. “It is one of our few urban prisons and there are challenges but with Superintendent Lamas’ leadership they have rallied. It’s an exciting time for (the Department of Corrections) to continue to improve the system.”