Norway is well known for its distinctive approach to criminal justice. Fewer than 4,000 prisoners represent just 60 per 100,000 of the population (less than half the rate in England and Wales). Prisoners are mainly held in small and innovative prisons where highly qualified personnel aim to create as normal an environment as possible. Though difficult to measure, apparently very low reoffending rates have attracted visitors from around the world and the “radical humaneness” of Halden and the “nicest prison in the world” at Bastoy attract frequent media coverage.
What deserve to be better known are the impressive efforts Norway makes to promote and support prison reform beyond its borders, particularly in Eastern Europe. Just published is a Rapid Assessment I led last year on a 53 million Euro grant programme to support prison and probation systems in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania.
As a legacy from the communist period, these countries inherited high prison populations, lack of community-based sanctions, inadequate and overcrowded prisons and poorly trained staff. Underpinning these problems has been a historical priority attached to punishment and security rather than rehabilitation. The Norway Grants scheme has helped to make inroads into the punitive culture in four main ways.
First, by improving material conditions. 78 pre- trial detention centres in Bulgaria, Latvia and Romania now largely meet European standards on space, ventilation, light, exercise and visits as a result of renovation and new equipment. New and modernised infrastructure has enabled prisons to reduce overcrowding, and better meet basic and healthcare needs- for example via a new kitchen at Bulgaria’s Burgas prison and medical facilities at Sliven Women’s prison. Replacing large dormitories with cell type accommodation in a Lithuanian prison has helped reduce the influence of a negative prison subculture dating from Soviet times. More creative infrastructure was developed in Romania where deep in the Danube Delta, prisoners were trained to use traditional techniques for walls and roofing to build vocational training spaces. Now, the mainly Roma prisoners can benefit from the “human ecology” approach to imprisonment pioneered at Bastoy.
Second, regimes and services for prisoners have been enhanced, not only through education and training but treatment for addiction and preparation for release. Olaine Addiction Centre was set up to offer treatment for the four out of five prisoners in Latvia with a drug problem. Intensive individual and group programmes are provided for each resident by psychologists and “contact persons”- prison staff -who don’t wear uniforms and play a role more as mentors than as guards. One resident told us “in other prisons you are an animal, here you are human.”
More innovative still is the Lithuanian Mother and Baby Home – a comfortable 5-bedroom detached house purchased with Norway grant funds so that women can serve their sentences without being separated from their young children. The mothers felt that they could really look after them, buying and cooking food, taking them out to a nearby park, the theatre or other educational activities. As one said, “It’s not like prison it’s like home”.
Third, professional training has involved more than 20,000 participants across the six countries - guards, psychologists and social workers – with courses including first aid and escorting duties, specific treatment programmes, human rights and dynamic security. Poland in particular, has invested heavily in its prison staff training capacity, borrowing heavily from the Norwegian Correctional Staff Academy, while the Czech Republic developed a curriculum for continuing professional training of probation staff. In Bulgaria, a prison service previously cautious about working with and learning from civil society groups embraced the opportunity to do so.
Finally, Norway has supported alternatives to prison through funding Electronic Monitoring and investing in probation staff and programmes. In Latvia, if they agree to be monitored, prisoners can apply for conditional release from prison at an earlier stage of their sentence than usual. Since the scheme was introduced in 2015, 267 people have been “tagged”, with a 93% success rate. Only 16 were returned to prison following violations.
The assessment found that the impact of the programme as a whole was down to much more than Norway’s deep pockets. Bilateral cooperation with Norwegian institutions has provided inspiration, support for policy and practice change, educational content in terms of models and programmes, and connections with relevant organisations and agencies. Some of the more straightforward infrastructure improvements might have been made without input from Norway (and the Council of Europe who were also involved). But new regimes and services for prisoners, alternatives to custody and professional training of staff could not have been developed and implemented to the extent that they were without the involvement of the partners.
A new cycle of grants is now underway which looks to build on what has been achieved. The assessment makes a number of recommendations about how impact in the future can be maximised- and better measured. But the report is in large part a relatively rare thing. A good news story about prisons.