Norway-USA Prison Systems

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Prison systems are different all across the world and these differences can be found in everything from the number of prisons, the types of programs offered in the prisons, and so on. The United States and Norway have wholly different systems that have little in common with each other. These differences result in the money spent on the prison system, the type of treatment afforded those in prison as well as the training and expectations imposed on guards. Understanding the social context and political climates of these countries is also important because these two nations are different in both of these aspects as well, and this affects their respective criminal justice systems. The forms of government also make a huge impact on the creation of prisons and how they are built and run with prisons being built that are private and state owned. Each nation has created a prison system that represents its viewpoints on justice, safety and economics in a manner that represents its people and its ideals in terms of society and government. The differences between the two are many, and the similarities are few and far between. The system in the USA represents a more punitive and widely used incarceration system, while Norway’s is more reformative and program heavy.

The United States has one of the largest and most widely used prison system in the entire world. Populations within the US system have steadily grown and the US ranks highly when compared to world prison populations (Tonry, 1999). Additionally, the number of prisons has also grown tremendously and the USA boasts a high number of prisons in comparison to other first world nations. This is a distinguishing factor in the US system, the overreliance on the prisons as a solution to problems in the criminal justice system. This is indicative of the attitudes and government of the country as it has developed over the last century. The 20th century saw a flip flopping between punitive programs and restorative ones. Each one was influenced by political climates and social attitudes on crime in the nation (Petersilia, 1999). As “tough on crime” policies were pushed as the solution, the effectiveness of prison was a secondary concern to the conveyance of a “tough” system that was putting all dangerous people in a place where they could not hurt people. This attitude made is acceptable to create mandatory minimums and 3 strikes rules that put discretion and control into the hands of prosecutors and judges (Bjerk, 2005). This has been an issue because these individuals need to be re-elected and it causes them many times to make decisions that are going to be seen positively in the eyes of constituents, rather than making decisions that take rehabilitation into account. These circumstances have created a perfect storm in which society has seen it as perfectly acceptable to fill prisons up, even it means they are past capacity and full of violence and poor treatment.

The resulting system in the USA is now one that is overcrowded, overburdened and in many places, inhumane. This inhumanity is tied to the high rates of overcrowding that have created a crisis of healthcare, sanitation and rights. The overcrowding has been the issue that has led to many of the other problems seen in the US system. Overcrowded prisons are forced to turn rooms not meant for housing into temporary-housing styled rooms that force huge amounts of prisoners together into a small space with either no plumbing, or limited plumbing. The situation is so bad that many cannot get basic access to bathrooms and showers, or even access to sanitary supplies like toilet paper and toothbrushes. This prison system has also been unable to handle the healthcare needs of the inmates leading to many issues of both mental and physical health, as well as dental health (Brooker & Gojkovic, 2009). These deplorable situations of overcrowding also make the living conditions of the inmates harder by confining them to smaller than usual spaces with a higher number of people, leading to increased violence. This increase in violence puts the guards on edge, and their training is a military style one that results in an inability to connect on a level that fosters understanding (“Violence…”, 2008). The guards are violent in regard to the inmates and the inmates are violent towards the guards, and the source of the problem is that the prisons are overcrowded. The source of the prison overcrowding is based on a society and criminal justice system that is punitive in nature and relies on prisons as the solution to the problems of crime and recidivism. The solution for many of these problems has been to privatize the corrections systems in states like Pennsylvania so that more inmates can be incarcerated in a “humane” manner. The US prison system is considered by many to be a “prison-industrial complex” and the goal is to make money (Eriksson, 2006). This creates a situation in which remaining a punitive system is beneficial to the prisons, because their ultimate goal of increasing profits is being obtained.

Norway is leaps and bounds apart from the number, population, attitudes and policies related to prisons in comparison to the USA. Norway has a society and a belief system that is centered on equality and rehabilitation. This translates into a legal, criminal justice and political system that is also rehabilitative in nature. Recent events in Norway have made it common knowledge on an international scale, that the maximum penalty for a crime is only 2 decades. This is not to say that an individual cannot be kept in prison indefinitely, because they can. At 5 year intervals an individual is reassessed to determine if they are still a threat to society, and can therefore be in prison for like if they are not deemed rehabilitated. The point of this exercise is that people are always able to change and be rehabilitated, and that prison is not a place to utilize as a permanent solution for people who have made mistakes. Norway has a very low prison population as one can imagine, and the number of actual prisons is actually relatively low. It is not that they have fewer prisons than the USA in literal terms, because the US has a significantly higher population than Norway so this would not be a realistic comparison. The numbers are lower when compared statistically for the population, and in that regard Norway has fewer prisons, and fewer people in prisons (Pratt, 2008). The entire core of the Scandinavian belief system is tied into the practice of incarceration and this culture of equality is represented in the low prison populations, and the humane treatment of those in prisons.

Norway allows for the involvement of prisoners in the decisions that are made regarding them and also affords them many opportunities to be rehabilitated and counseled. One method to this end has been the organization KROM, the Norwegian Association for Penal Reform. This group meets every single year with professionals involved in the penal system as well as actual prisoners to discuss the policies in the penal system (Garland, 2001). This is a different attitude and approach that is unique to Scandinavian countries. Inmates in these Norwegian prisons are also given rooms that afford them privacy and access to bathrooms and showers, without having to be in a tight or cramped space with many other people. Additionally, these inmates have access to medical and dental care, as well as medicine and basic sanitary tools. The living conditions are very good in the Norwegian system and inmates are involved in maintaining the grounds and have common areas that are clean, well-kept and have activities to keep inmates busy in a constructive manner. The calmer environment results in guards that are trained to respect the inmates and not to have fear of them that can result in violence towards guards and inmates. This system is still aiming to correct the wrongs of the prisoners and teach them new ways to incorporate themselves into society, but in a way that the punishment angle is given a less amount of weight than the rehabilitation.

As previously mentioned, the differences between these two systems are many, and the similarities are quite few in number. Both nations have a prison system, and do incarcerate people. Also, both Norway and the USA have beliefs in restorative justice and rehabilitation. This is where the similarities end and the differences begin. The US system leans heavily on punishment and has a distrusting and critical eye towards rehabilitation. The US relies on prisons that are very punitive in nature and has prisons that are max and super max, where people are rarely let out of their cells at all. Norway on the other hand relies on rehabilitation as their guiding principle and therefore has an open system where inmates are allowed outside and have private rooms that give them space to move and live comfortably. The US system has a problem with crowding that is so bad it makes many prisons simply inhumane places where individuals are herded into small cells in huge numbers. Guards in the US system suffer violence and unsafe working conditions due to the overcrowding as well. The Norwegian system has no overcrowding and also has no widespread concerns with relations and violence between guards and inmates. While both systems aim to rehabilitate, the Norwegian system seems to be ingrained in the society as a whole and the state welfare system establishes a belief in the group or the community that carries over to even those who have broken a trust within that community (Pratt, 2008). The US system is a more individual one that exhorts individual responsibility and success. It is no surprise then that for many, rehabilitation at the possible cost of the greater community is not seen as the right direction to go in.

Norway and the USA have prison systems that are very different from each other. Around the world there are many methods utilized to control crime and bring people under a singular set of social constraints, beliefs and actions. In an attempt to control those who operate outside of these desires, nations utilize prisons and jails to carrying degrees. The make-up of the society, as well as the belief systems of their respective criminal justice systems all affect the goals they hope to accomplish with their prisons. For Norway the key word appears to be rehabilitate, and in the USA it is punish.


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