How Sweden Brilliantly Ended its Addiction to Prison

August 4th 2015

Corrie Shenigo

While the U.K., U.S. and Australia all find themselves with a glut of overcrowded prisons and an increasing number of inmates, Sweden boasts a drop in incarceration rates so great, it has allowed them to shutter several of their oldest prisons altogether. Why? It may be due to Sweden’s rehabilitative ethos on the idea of prison itself.

"Our role is not to punish," Director-general of Sweden’s Prison and Probation Service, Nils Oberg said in a 2014 interview with the Guardian. "The punishment is the prison sentence: [Prisoners] have been deprived of their freedom. Some people have to be incarcerated, but it has to be a goal to get them back out into society in better shape than they were when they came in."

This translates to both open and closed prisons offering mental health and substance abuse treatment, access to both basic and advanced education, and the opportunity to work with pay.

A 2013 Atlantic article by Doran Larson describes even the highest-security Swedish prisons as having common areas with table tennis, pool tables, steel darts, and aquariums. There are often dorm room-like cells complete with real beds and private bathrooms, access to computers, televisions and cell phones, and kitchens where inmates are expected to cook their own food and eat meals with other inmates and their guards. Prisoners are also afforded certain privileges: the ability to see and spend time with family, wear their own clothes, and take supervised trips to the grocery store.

Perhaps the most striking feature of this rehabilitative model is the role of Swedish correctional officers. Many are former lawyers, social workers, and mental health professionals, who act as both security and support in an effort to create a "therapeutic culture” between staff and offenders. The officers are expected to encourage prisoners to advance education and skills training. They're also offering behavioral intervention. In a 2014 Langford Trust speech, Oberg likened the officers to “the role models our inmates have never had in their lives."

Since the vast majority of prisoners both here and in Sweden will someday be released, Sweden’s rehabilitative stance is not only good for the prisoner, but is also good for the community. Sweden currently boasts one of the world’s lowest incarceration rates, a 30 to 40 percent recidivism rate—nearly half of what the U.S. sees, according to 2014 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics—and prison and probation admission figures that have dropped by 6 percent since 2011.

According to the number, Sweden’s penal ideology of staff-prisoner relations, rehabilitation, and second chances is working, but it is not without a cost. Sweden spends on average $91,000 per year, per prisoner. In 2010 the Vera Institute of Justice found that on average America spends $31,286.

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In 2012, Sweden's prison population was 4,852, out of a total population of 9.5 million; in the U.S. around 2.2 million people are incarcerated, out of a population of 318.9 million people.

Sweden’s diminishing incarceration numbers are also due to other factors. Politicians must constitutionally abide by a hands-off approach when it comes to the running of prisons, which ensures that prison and probation policy won’t be impulsively swayed by public opinion. Since the mid-1970’s Sweden’s penal law has also been geared toward reducing the use of prison sentences, through the use of fines, electronic monitoring, and probation. In 2011 the country’s Supreme Court issued new criteria for drug trafficking convictions, resulting in less severe sentencing for more minor crimes. “It has to do with whether you decide to use prison as your first option or as a last resort, and what you want your probation system to achieve.” said Oberg. "There is in my opinion almost always potential for change."

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