A student’s take on Halden Prison
Drexel University students travel to Norway to compare its prisons to those in America
The Norwegian American
Our ideas of prisons mostly come through TV and movies.
The loud clang of the iron bar doors closing. The rows of cells on each side. Guards with rings of keys and billy clubs walking menacingly down the hall. Watching eyes during work routines. A dark cell with a dim light bulb, hard bed, sink, and toilet. A warden charged with keeping prisoners in line.
Does this work to rehabilitate inmates? Do inmates need terrible conditions as punishment for their crimes?
Dr. Jordan Hyatt, assistant professor of Criminology & Justice Studies at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, became intrigued by the Scandinavian model while teaching at a boarding school in southern Sweden. He returned to the United States to earn a law degree. While at the University of Pennsylvania, he met Synøve Andersen, a researcher at Statistics Norway, at the American Society of Criminology convention. Andersen had been writing about similar interests but with Norwegian data. Over the course of the next few years they discussed how to collaborate.
After moving to Drexel in 2014, Hyatt applied for an Intensive Course Abroad (ICA) program to take students to Norway to compare American and Norwegian prisons and attitudes about criminal justice. He took five students in December 2016 and 12 in 2017.
“There are two general goals,” said Dr. Hyatt. “The first is practical: understanding the nuts and bolts of different corrections. We teach our students about how things work and what prisons are for. We have a very myopic, almost ethnocentric approach to teaching. I wanted them to see in practice a different approach.
“The other is more philosophical: to look at a correctional system that approaches the idea of how an individual committed a crime and reintegrating them back into society from a very different group cause. You can learn about how the systems are different, but it’s meaningful to go and actually see what they do.”
Halden fengsel is eye opening. While a concrete wall gives indication of enclosure, the grounds have trees and gardens. Inmates wear neither orange jumpsuits nor black and white stripes. Their cells include a TV and private bathroom. The atmosphere is amicable.
“As a criminologist, I’ve been in prisons across Pennsylvania and in America,” said Hyatt. “You come in with a very fairly well-formed understanding of what a prison is and has to be like. Going to Halden for the first time, I had the same kind of experience my students did. A little bit incredulous, a little bit of disbelief, and a little bit of envy all at once, and a whole lot of questions about how that kind of a prison functions. The more time you spend there, you get a better sense of how the very different philosophical, practical, and social environments these prisons sit informs what’s possible.”
The students did not visit Halden in a vacuum. All criminology majors must spend time in prisons. For the first time in 2017, there were some non-criminology majors on the trip, who brought a perspective from their discipline They, too, had to visit an American prison. In one course, students took a class with inmates in the prison. On the recent trip, they also visited a detention prison, Oslo court, and a juvenile facility in Sweden.
Halden governor—warden to us—Are Høidal and Andersen have also visited prisons here. He has run Halden—which is an exception even in Norway—since it opened on March 1, 2010.
“Specifically, we did an inside-out class, 15 Drexel students and 15 inmates,” said senior Emma Nolan, 21, of Mystic, Conn. “You sit across from each other. You learn in the same classroom. You’re learning the same information. You’re reading from the same books. We’re meeting them every week. The first time I went there I was a little bit nervous because they weren’t handcuffed. … These prisoners are in here for murder. However, after my first class, I was never hesitant to go into a prison.
“In my freshman year I went to State Correctional Institute [SCI] in Chester [Penn.]. We were able to go talk to inmates, who had life prison sentences with no chance for parole. It was crazy to just talk to them and get their perspective. I didn’t realize that that’s what prisons were like.”
“The class was a very cool experience,” said Amanda Mazuchowski, 20, a sophomore Criminology and Environmental Studies major from Bensalem, Penn. “You might have ideas of what might be happening in prison, and then you actually talk to people who are going through and experiencing it.”
Allyssa Schuetz, 21, a senior Design and Merchandising major from Detroit, found SCI “very cut and dry. It felt very sterile. I was just a visitor, but I was scared to step out of line.”
Nolan was so affected by the trip to Halden in 2016, she arranged an Independent Study and returned in April 2017, and then again in December. She is still organizing that work, though she has presented at the American Society of Criminology conference.
There is more to Halden than a lack of iron bars and jumpsuits. Students were surprised to be joking with murderers.
It is unusual for students to visit Halden. “We have a lot of visits by employees from various prisons around the world and people from public offices, politicians and scientists,” said Høidal in an email. “The students from Drexel were very positive and interested. They had many good questions and the right attitudes. We have the same goals as all other prisons in Norway. Our social mission is to enforce remand orders and sentences in a manner that reassures society and attempts to prevent recidivism. Our job is to help offenders change their criminal behavior through their own efforts. Our goal is that the offenders will choose a life free of crime after completing their sentence. The vision for Halden prison: Punishment that works—change that lasts.”
The students will be surprised to see punishment as the word used in the vision statement; they see that as the stark difference between American and Norwegian prisons. American prisons punish, while Norwegian prisons rehabilitate. There is no death penalty or life imprisonment in Norway, so all inmates have an expectation of returning to society. With varied educational and vocational programs, Halden sees its role as developing inmates who will become productive members of society.
“I have been particularly impressed by the students’ curiosity and openness towards new perspectives on crime and punishment, as well as their ability to recognize the positive and the negative aspects of both the Scandinavian and American systems,” said Andersen.
The design and merchandising major had a perspective on the inmates wearing their own clothes. “A lot of times what you’re wearing affects your personality,” said Kruetz. “It’s how you represent your image. The fact that they’re able to be more than a number on a uniform allows them to show their personality, to have a little piece of home in a way.”
The facilities had a familiar look to the students.
“Halden is clean, organized with brand-new IKEA furniture,” said Nolan. “It was nicer than a college campus. My dorm room had two people in my freshman year and it was the same size as their one-person cells for their inmates. Obviously, they did have security precautions with the doors locking behind you.”
“The prisoners seemed to have a lot of freedom,” said Yih-Chi Lam, 20, a junior Criminology major from Havertown, Penn. “The prison grounds actually look more like a college campus than a prison. There was a giant concrete wall. Inside, there were hiking paths, bike trails. There were gardens where inmates could sit.”
“I feel that nature can be really rehabilitative for people because it gives them time to think and reflect. They don’t feel trapped behind the stone walls of the prison,” said Mazuchowski, an environmental studies major.
“I know how color can make people feel psychologically,” said Kruetz. “Going into these prisons that is something I looked for. You could see they were making efforts to turn a white wall into something else, with color or designs.”
“A rather unique feature of Halden is the layout of the prison,” said Andersen. “This is designed to replicate a ‘normal’ daily routine for inmates. Keeping housing, work, and leisure activities in separate buildings and providing opportunities to cook, go grocery shopping, and do laundry. While building a prison for 250 inmates in a Norwegian blueberry forest is clearly different than building a large maximum-security facility meant to house 3,500 people, I believe certain aspects of this idea could be applied in an American setting as well—the walls in different parts of the prison could be painted in different colors, for instance, or various forms of art could accompany the murals that decorate the walls in some prisons—all to reduce the sterile and institutional feel of the prison environment.”
Relationships for rehabilitation
Also shocking was the interpersonal relationships between the inmates and officers, who are uniformed, unarmed, and not referred to as guards. Inmates and officers were seen cooking and playing basketball together. Høidal and Andersen said the officers go through two to three years of paid training at University College of Norwegian Correctional Service, where they take courses in psychology, criminology, security, law, human rights, and ethics. “The most important thing is the way the guards work with the inmates and the dynamic security,” said Høidal.
“Dynamic security is the interpersonal relationships and systematic forms for interaction between prisoners, convicts, and employees. Examples include presence together with the inmate in the unit, contact officer work, leisure activities, work, and program activities. What we call the ‘import model’ is also very important. That means that crucial services for reintegration are delivered to the prison by local and municipal service providers. The most difficult part is the follow-up with the inmates in the community after release. The inmate shall, if relevant, have help with getting employment, education, suitable housing accommodation, some type of income, medical services, addiction treatment services, and in-depth counseling.”
“They have the concrete wall on the outside and certain infrastructure that would keep the prisoners in,” said Lam. “Between people, the security was more social than intimidation. I think prisons here [in the U.S.] are seen more as places of punishment and containment. Over there, it’s rehabilitation and containment. So, the correctional officers there are assigned to a prisoner or two as a mentor. They had a lot of programs for them, like culinary that released a book. They had woodwork, art classes. They even had a music studio named Criminal Records. The first time I saw the sign on the door I didn’t think we were supposed to go in there. I was in for a surprise.”
A life-changing experience
When asked how the experience changed them, Nolan said, “I’ve always wanted to be a sharpshooter since I was a kid, to do some sort of work for the government. After doing the project, I want to research criminology and justice reform.”
“My goal when I graduate is to help a company become more socially responsible with their employees,” said Kruetz. “I would be open to hiring an inmate, because this process took away that negative stigma I had growing up in the States. I realize they’re normal people. Humans should be treated as humans. That’s a right. We shouldn’t be treating people any other way. This reinforced [that] I should be doing this.”
“It made me see that punishment might not be the best system for treating criminals, but rehabilitation is definitely important because you want to try to help the people,” said Mazuchowski. “It’s very eye-opening to see that you don’t have to treat prisoners like animals. You can treat them like real people, and that can actually make a difference.”
“A lot of social issues and crime are tied together,” said Lam. “They really try to address the root causes of crime. It made me a lot more interested in the effects of crime policy and collaborations between different fields.”
From the students’ viewpoint, elements of Halden could be implemented in American prisons, but it would take a change in attitude. Little could be offered in reverse. Hyatt, Andersen, and Høidal don’t see it that way. When Høidal and Andersen visited U.S. prisons, they were fascinated by dog-training programs for inmates, like Animal Planet’s TV program Pit Bulls and Parolees, which works with prisoners after release, and professional workshops.
Høidal and Andersen were also struck by the sheer size of American prisons. “I have not seen too many American prisons, but I think they were very big, with many inmates and few prison officers,” said Høidal. “It is difficult to work with change processes for inmates in big prisons like that. I think the prisons mostly are ‘storage’ of people and do not focus on rehabilitation of people. They also use a lot of solitary confinement in American prisons. There were too few inmates who were offered activities in workshops or schools.”
“There are several aspects of American prisons I find worthy of praise, including the work done in the intensive treatment units,” said Andersen. “I also have a great amount of respect for the people whose jobs involve being responsible for the lives of so many people with a very limited amount of resources.”
Michael Kleiner has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web-design business in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce Philadelphia. Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 6, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.