Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Beware Stockholm Syndrome- Why Sweden's Prisons May Not Be Perfect

I am looking forward to hearing the head of Sweden’s prison service, Nils Oberg, give the Longford Lecture tomorrow about how the country has reduced its prison population and maintained, and even developed, a progressive approach within the prison walls. The headline in his Guardian interview with Erwin James today is “Prison is not for Punishment in Sweden”, but of course it’s not supposed to be in the UK either. Notwithstanding the present Justice Secretary’s desire to make jails Spartan places, people are sent to prison as a punishment not for a punishment. Its perhaps not surprising in times of austerity that less eligibility assumes greater significance in penal policy- it will be interesting to hear how the Swedes have dealt with the tiresome argument that life in prison should be in no way preferable to life outside, in case people are somehow  incentivised to return to it.

While we have much to learn about the best size for prisons, appropriate training of staff and the philosophy of normalisation, before we all to succumb to Stockholm syndrome it is worth remembering two areas where perhaps the Swedes can perhaps learn from elsewhere.

The first concerns the treatment of remand prisoners. About a quarter of Swedish prisoners are on remand in pre- trial detention, compared to 14% in England and Wales. During 2013 the authorities subjected about half of detainees to extended isolation or to restrictions on mail delivery or exercise. Authorities took this step when detainees’ contact with people outside the detention centre could risk destroying evidence or changing witnesses’ statements, thereby imperilling a continuing investigation.In such cases, the only visits a detainee might receive would be from a lawyer and a priest.

 The Council of Europe and UN have been highly critical of the treatment of pre- trial detainees in Sweden and while rights to appeal against restrictions were introduced in 2011,  we will have to wait until the Committee for the Prevention of Torture visit next year to establish  how far things have changed.

The second area concerns the prevention of torture and ill treatment. Sweden was one of the first countries to ratify the Optional Protocol on the Prevention against Torture which requires the establishment of National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) to visit places of detention. Sweden gave the role to two existing supervisory bodies , the Parliamentary Ombudsman and Chancellor  of Justice.

A UN delegation that visited in  2007 was  left “with a certain degree of perplexity asto the prospects for these bodies to fulfil the NPM mandate” because they were largely reactive and lacked funds. Since then ,  a separate unit has been established in the Ombudsman’s office with a budget- but it remains to be seen whether the arrangements are now satisfactory.

Mr Oberg could rightly claim that these shortcomings are outside his mandate- and they should do nothing to detract from the many positive aspects of rehabilitation and preparation for release which characterise Swedens prisons and the way probation services have helped to bring down the number of prisoners. But they serve to show that penal systems in perhaps every country  have both  strengths and weaknesses - there is cerainly no perfect model.

1 comment:

  1. A very insightful conclusion - as always! - Rob. I guess we all have a lot about which to be humble? Vivian Geiran