“Little Scandinavia” comes to Pennsylvania

A prison of compassion and humanity

chester

Ribbon cutting for Little Scandinavia unit at State Correctional Institution Chester, Pa., from left, Patricia Connor-Council, unit manager SCI; Dr. Jordan Hyatt, assistant professor of Criminology and Justice Studies at Philadelphia’s Drexel University; University of Oslo researcher Dr. Synøve Andersen; officers Malin Anette Klund, Ringerike Prison, Tina Olsen, Romerike Prison, Line Syverstad, Ila Detention and Security Prison; George Little, acting secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections; Kenneth Eason, superintendent of SCI Chester.

MICHAEL KLEINER
Business and Sports Editor
The Norwegian American

Sometimes, “it can’t be done,” is motivation.

In December 2017, Dr. Jordan Hyatt, assistant professor of Criminology and Justice Studies at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, took his second group of students to Norway and Sweden to compare their prison systems to America’s. Students felt that certain elements of the model Halden prison in Norway could be applied to American prisons, but it would need a change in attitude (see “A student’s take on Halden Prison,” The Norwegian American, April 6, 2018).

Hyatt and his long-time colleague, University of Oslo researcher Dr. Synøve Andersen, arranged two trips. In 2019, the leadership team went to Sweden and Denmark, while officers spent several weeks in Norwegian prisons paired with a mentor (guard). In the spring, George Little, acting secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, joined SCI personnel in traveling to Sweden.

Back “home,” a wing of the facility began to be remodeled–with the help of inmates–in July 2019. Covid put SCI (State Correctional Institution) Chester in lockdown, delayed work, and suspended travel to Scandinavia.

SCI Chester had a ribbon-cutting ceremony and unveiling of “Little Scandinavia” on May 5. Speakers included Kenneth Eason, superintendent of SCI Chester; Little; three Norwegian officers Line Syverstad, Ila Detention and Security Prison, Tina Olsen, Romerike Prison, and Malin Anette Klund, Ringerike Prison; Hyatt, Andersen, and Patricia Connor-Council, unit manager at SCI Chester. Representatives from the Swedish and Danish prison and probation services were unable to attend, though there was a video message from Martin Gillå, head of office for International Affairs at Kriminalvården (Swedish Prison and Protection Services). A crew from Swedish Public Broadcasting Service, who had been documenting the project from the beginning, was there.

“This project was built on an international, interdisciplinary collaboration and there are plenty of people not here today who have helped make this happen,” said Andersen.

“I began my employment with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections 32 years ago as an officer,” said Eason. “I could never have imagined I would have the approval to sit down with my men, you heard it, my men, and share a meal. I could never imagine I’d be given permission for knives on a housing unit. I’m talking meat cleavers, for my men to use in a kitchen. Never could I imagine 32 years ago that I would see my men not just eating commissary meals, makeshift meals, sugary snacks but instead purchasing items from a grocery store and fixing themselves a meal. All those things scream normalcy and humanity. I am the luckiest man in the world right now. I take this business of mine very seriously. I’m truly blessed to be part of this program celebrated and supported by so many and to have the unique opportunity to lead these men.

chester fish tank

One of the first things you see at the Little Scandinavia unit at State Correctional Institution Chester, Pa., is a fish tank, full of cheerful bright.

“We’re asked why are we doing this? We lead with compassion and humanity here at Chester. You’re going to see a change in culture, the impact, rippling effect and not just within the walls. I’m speaking about wellness within the men, lessened stress, living healthier and reentry tools introduced to them that they truly need to be successful beyond these walls, do well and not come back. People will be happy to come to work, excited to be part of the change. I want to thank so many … our Norwegian friends, our partnerships, they are now our family.”

“When the chance to change corrections was presented to me, I jumped at the opportunity,” said Connor-Council. “The premise was corrections is not working. As a team, powers to be in the central office, the stars all aligned and we were able to travel to Norway on the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s dime. Wow. It was nine officers, myself as unit manager, former superintendent Marirosa Lamas and then-deputy superintendent Eason. The officers were embedded in three institutions in Norway to absorb as much knowledge as possible and to bring back information to create our own Little Scandinavia.”

As visitors were led to Little Scandinavia, there were walls with inspirational quotes and artwork that had been there for years, but outside the entrance to Little Scandinavia was a new mural of a globe and stars with the inscription: “Humanity Across the World, Norway, Sweden, Chester, Neighbors.”

You wouldn’t know you were in a prison upon first entering. A fish tank was on a shelf. Little Scandinavia was written on the underside of stairs in sparking letters. On the walls were crests painted by an inmate, one with a Norwegian and Swedish flag. Along the left side were single occupant cells. Steps led to cells on a second floor. Officer Chris Morton showed me one of the cells. Though tiny, it had a small TV, sink, toilet, minifridge and private locker. If you’ve already been imprisoned for 30 years, how does a few creature comforts hurt?

chester

“We wanted to brighten up the colors in the unit, be light and airy. We wanted the furniture soft and modern. We put in sound-dampening panels. We were looking at a modern aesthetic,” says Unit Manager Patricia Connor-Council.

There were men wearing green polo shirts talking to guests. “They’re lifers,” said Morton, who went to Scandinavia in the second phase. “They’re also serving as mentors to other prisoners, providing stability, calmness, setting a tone. They’re a good group. The mentoring goes on their record and gives them an opportunity for parole.”

Two large living rooms included comfortable, colorful chairs, foosball and air hockey tables, and exercise machines. There was a laundry room with washer, dryer, iron, and ironing board. An eating area outside a kitchen, which included four ovens, three microwaves, three refrigerator/freezers, a blender, Keurig machine, and locked in a case on the wall, sharp knives. There are potted plants, a backyard area for relaxation, a fresh herb garden that can be used in food preparation.

Six lifers have resided there for about a year, 29 inmates joined them in May, and another 29 will move in during the summer for a maximum of 64.

“One of the main structural changes that was very big for us was the inmates would be in single cells,” said Connor-Council. “We wanted to brighten up the colors in the unit, be light and airy. We wanted the furniture soft and modern. We put in sound dampening panels. We were looking at a modern aesthetic.

“We are impressed, a bit speechless, and congratulate you on the great job you have done so far,” said Syverstad. “In Norway, the punishment is the restriction of liberty. No other rights have been removed by the court. Therefore, the inmate has the same rights as others who live in Norway. No one shall serve a sentence under stricter circumstances than necessary for the security of the community. During serving of the sentence, life will be similar to the outside. We work on the principal of normality, whose implementation is limited by security reasons, framework of correctional management like financial resources. Our values are safety, transparency, and innovation. Our values guide our everyday behavior and actions reflect our culture. It’s important that inmates and employees feel safe. The strategy gives us direction for the future.”

For the officers who went to Norway, one of the biggest shocks and adjustments was eating meals with inmates. A video showed the experiences in Norway and the building of Little Scandinavia.

Paige Devane says, “If you wanted to sit with them at the table, you could, if you didn’t, that was okay, too. The dinner blew my mind. I felt like I was in a completely alternate universe. At that moment, I didn’t feel like I’m superior to you or I’m in a position of authority over you. We were all just eating a meal. It was nice. We don’t ever have moments like that at [Chester]. I would get fired.”

“I’m a massive skeptic about this project,” said Tyler Karasinski while at Ila Prison. “I don’t think what they do here can exactly be reproduced in the United States and be successful.”

He was shown laughing while playing video games with an inmate from a solitary confinement unit at Ila. “That’s crazy to me. You don’t play video games with an inmate. I have other things to worry about as an officer. Here not so much. It was pretty special because he was from solitary confinement and he was someone you wanted to engage with.”

Turquoise Danford went on rounds with mentors waking up inmates at Ringerike Prison. “They do things differently there, very gentle and serene,” she said. “Knock on the door, open it, go over say, ‘Good morning.’ That part stuck with me. I get the rationale behind it. Who wouldn’t want to be awakened in such a nice fashion? It set the tone for the rest of the day. There are things that are easily transferable like values system, things that aren’t concrete that we need money for. The other thing is changing the landscape.”

chester inmate

Joe, wearing the green polo shirt with SCI Chester Little Scandinavia logo, in the audience at the program unveiling the Little Scandinavia unit at State Correctional Institution Chester, Pa. The green shirt indicates he’s a lifer, but the lifers are serving as mentors to other inmates in the unit.

Olsen described the education of officers in Norway. The over two-year program is theoretical and practical. Some subjects include law, security, physical use of force, ethics and professionalism, mental health, conflict management. “We learn how to distinguish between the person himself and the action performed,” said Olsen, who works with repeat offenders. “The contact officer is the main contact for the inmate, assisting with his practical needs like applications for housing, future work. We have something called responsibility group meeting with the inmate, contact officer, head of unit, lawyer, social worker, and sometimes representatives from different volunteer organizations. The purpose of the meeting is making solid plans for the future, increasing chances of success when returning back to society.”

“On my shift, I spend all my hours with the inmates,” said Klund. “We believe spending time with the inmates is a way of working with security. When we get to know them, we can see changes in their behavior, it will be easier for them to trust us and come to us. Building relationships with the inmates, we call this dynamic security and is an important part of the normality and plays a big role in the rehabilitation and reintegration.”

The three officers presented Connor-Council with two pictures called “Hope” by a Norwegian artist.

“The staff was selected on a voluntary basis,” said Connor-Council. “Folks came on board for the ‘what if’ or ‘imagine a prison.’ They were each willing to give the idea of change a chance, some more than others. Working alongside the residents in the unit, zones were established so each contact officer was responsible for four to six residents exclusively. The interaction is meant to assist with the more direct conversation about going home, staying home, jobs, resources, family, life. We gained a partnership with ShopRite. Residents have new uniforms. Nothing could have been done without the support of the contact officers.”

At SCI Chester, the residents are feeling the change. In the video, one says, “I’ve been in jail for 31 years and for the first time I ate food cooked in an oven, a stromboli. I just finished eating pancakes and bananas that were tremendous. That’s just something small. There’s a lot more to come on a big scale. We’re inmates, but the biggest thing is we’re humans.”

An officer said, “peaceful environment” has been mentioned frequently by residents.

Morton said staff are calling inmates by their first names and engaging more personally, resulting in a laidback atmosphere.

“I’m still skeptical but I have higher hopes for it now,” said Karasinski. “I want it to work. I look forward to getting on the block and showing the Norwegians we can do it better than them. The United States is known for doing things better. They’re going to be No. 2 in a few years, five years, 10 years.”

 

All photos courtesy of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

This article originally appeared in the June 24, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, 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 for small businesses, authors and community organizations 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 a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce Philadelphia. Visit Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.

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