Since 2013, officials from at least a dozen states have toured prisons in Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands on official trips organized by the Prison Law Office and the Vera Institute of Justice. The idea is to expose forward-thinking prison officials to places that embrace rehabilitation over punishment, coupling intensive counseling and education with an environment that mimics the world these men and women will rejoin at the end of their sentences.
The selling point is that in the U.S., as in Europe, most prisoners will return home. If they are not rehabilitated by then, they may commit more crimes, and Europeans understand this far better than Americans. Williams said, “We tell our participants, ‘Ask your cab drivers, your waiters, what is the point of the prison system?’ Everyone will say, ‘To make better neighbors.’”
Even when American officials express sincere admiration for the European approach, they also talk of political and practical constraints. They have far more prisoners to house than their European peers, and little control over the long sentences passed by legislatures. Norway and Germany have managed to insulate their prison officials from political pressures, while in the U.S., governors can replace leaders who get a reputation in the media for creating “country-club prisons.” The Prison Law Office, which continues to hold the trips yearly, increasingly focuses on aspects of prison management that are more immediately adaptable, and asks corrections leaders to bring along legislative and executive branch officials with influence over budgets.
“They are light years ahead of us,” Lance Lowry, head of the officer union in Texas, said of Norway’s prisons. “We look at punishment as ‘take away, take away, take away,’ but what are we adding?”