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The wisdom of humane prison design


Halden Prison, Norway

There's a saying amongst prisoners: ‘You can't sharpen a knife on a blanket’.

In other words, the tougher the prison is, the tougher the prisoners will get, just to survive. Then, when they are released, all they know is crime and the only people they know are criminals with no money.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The design of Norway’s maximum-security Halden facility (pictured) incorporates a new way of thinking about prisons and the people in them. None of the windows has bars, and the cells are designed with ensuites and flat screen TVs, to mirror life ‘on the outside’ as far as possible.

This provides a start contrast with the increasingly punitive thinking in the United States, and also Australia. Our Indigenous incarceration rates are climbing, and we’re following the US into prison privatisation, with several of our facilities already operated by overseas companies.

Is it possible – and desirable – for prisons to be humane?

Some would say the very idea conflicts with our ideology of condemning criminal acts and removing those who commit them from society. Then there are the pragmatists who argue that the majority of inmates will be 'out-mates' at some point, and around 30 to 40% of people who are in prison will end up back there.

Many concede that life on the inside does not lead to a crime-free life on the outside. But we baulk at the idea of trying to help prisoners. Therapy? For criminals? It may seem that we're pandering to their needs, but wouldn't it be better if we could somehow make it so that, when they get out of prison, they weren't as likely as they are now to commit more crimes?

The idea of spending money on prisoners is anathema to the Australian public. We can hardly imagine installing $1 million worth of artwork in a maximum security prison. But that's exactly what the planners of Halden Prison did, and the recidivism rates in Norway, and their incarceration rates generally, are almost half ours. Another difference is that Norwegian guards must undertake three years of training in understanding criminals, prison life, and the philosophies behind them, whereas our guards undertake only a short course for 14 weeks.

In 2008 we opened the Alexander Maconochie Centre in Canberra. At significant cost to taxpayers, it featured domestic style cottages, an education building and a library. The rooms there are not hard-granite cells and the prisoners can watch TV and socialise.

It's called normalisation: making it easier for them to eventually reintegrate to society. Needless to say, there was controversy about the amount of money the prison cost to build and the amount it costs to keep prisoners there. But thinking long-term, these costs would be more than recovered if they kept people out of prison.

The thought put into prison design, and indeed the way of sentencing, plays a part in stigmatising the people we put in them. Judges condemn criminals. Prison guards fear them. We treat them like badly behaved and  very dangerous children.

It would be simplistic to say that every person locked in a prison cell right now should be there. That would ignore the many factors that lead to a life of crime, and also the way we frame crime. In Australia we criminalise the poor, the different, the abused and people who live remotely.  

Crime does not occur in a vacuum. We make crime. We define it, and by doing so, we fail to take into account the causes of the behaviour we label. We don't address underlying factors before we put people in prison, and once they're in there, those problems aren't going away. They're getting worse.

Prisons can be a place of skill-building, rehabilitation and counselling, rather than fear and clandestine drug use. They could be a place of drug education, addiction treatment, and relapse prevention. We need to make it easier for people in prisons to choose a crime-free lifestyle. Australia is poised to make a change. We need to learn from the failures of the United States, and look to countries like Norway for a new way of thinking.

Mathew DrogemullerMathew Drogemuller is a journalist, songwriter and fiction typer, whose articles, stories and lyrics focus on social issues. Tweets @matdrogemuller.




Topic tags: Mathew Drogemuller, corrections, prisons, crime, punishment, Halden Prison



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Existing comments

Well said, Mathew. But the idiocy of many people can't be underestimated; at Port Arthur a couple of years ago we were looking at the disgusting cells and a woman said that they should bring back conditions like that 'to teach people a lesson'. I think she was from Queensland.

Penelope | 23 April 2015  

Brisbane's Boggo Road Jail never looked like that picture. Even driving past the jail was an event to be feared. The goal of incarceration should, of course, be rehabilitation and if a cushy time in prison achieves that then it's a win-win situation. When Mathew writes "In Australia, we criminalise the poor, the different, the abused and people who live remotely": this seems to exclude those people who are wealthy, fit into society seamlessly, were not abused as children and live in cities from being 'criminals'. I think.

Pam | 23 April 2015  

From what I've seen of Bali's Koribokan prison on TV, it looks more like a Balinese community centre (enclosed, of course) than a typical prison - where visitors wander around and mingle with the prisoners in the common areas. I don't know if this is typical of other Indonesian prisons (maybe it gets foreign funding to keep ex-pats?) But it's obviously done it's job in rehabilitating - and it seems that could all be for nothing.

AURELIUS | 24 April 2015  

Great comment Mathew I know of someone in a Tasmanian prison who was sentenced to 4 ½ years for a rather serious crime and has now clocked up 15 years...13 of that in solitary confinement. We know that solitary confinement can cause severe mental and physical pain or suffering, when used as a punishment. He has been subjected to beatings, starvation and many violations of basic human rights while in prison...and now he “bites”; (That’s what happens when you poke someone with a stick!) One day he will be released! Maybe...just maybe if we had a system like Norway’s Halden this man would be rehabilitated now and the Government would have saved around $1.5 million in incarceration costs.

Lanika | 25 April 2015  

Mathew, have a look at Hopkins Correctional Centre (aka Ararat Gaol) some time. Much of it looks like the pic, as far as I can tell from what the inmate whom I visit regularly describes. Medium security, which means not too many get there, and inmates transferred there (from high or maximum security prisons elsewhere in Victoria) as they near the end of their sentences, claim it to be a holiday camp compared to other gaols, particularly Barwon and Port Philip. Has flat-type units, (where they cook for themselves!) as well as single or double cells, TVs, counselling, education, the inmates work if they are able, & get paid (a pittance), & some of the pay is set aside compulsorily, so that they have some money when they are released. And more. Sounds quite similar to the Norwegian prisons. Would be interested to see recidivism rates for inmates from there compared to those from the High & Max security prisons, some of which are privately run. All prisoners there are 'protection', which may or may not make a difference, I don't know. But it sounds & looks much closer to the Norwegian example than US prisons on TV!

KarenS | 26 April 2015  

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