In my previous article regarding the right of life sentenced prisoners to have their sentences reviewed periodically, it was mentioned that rehabilitation is a vital part of the process that an inmate must go through in order to come out of prison on his best behaviour and start contributing to society without committing any more misdeeds.
Although easier said than done, rehabilitation involves the prisoner admitting his wrongs and striving towards changing himself for the better with the help of prison educators, mental health professionals and sheer self-will. Of course though, living in a positive environment that simulates the outside world as much as possible helps work towards this final aim. The following European prisons and half-way houses are the best examples of how this can be achieved.
Norway is considered to be the leading country in this regard, boasting several half-way houses and small prisons that put other countries’ incarceration systems to shame. Welcome to Bastoy Prison, a low security prison colony located in the middle of the Oslofjord, accessible by ferry. The 100 inmates live in small cottages and work on the prison farm. In addition to education, leisure activities include sunbathing, tennis and fishing. Only the best-behaved prisoners live here, and are transferred here from normal prisons to serve the last years of their sentence.
Another renowned Norwegian prison is Halden Prison, Norway’s second largest. Like Bastoy, its design simulates outside life as much as possible. It doesn’t have several of the conventional security devices, such as barbed wire, electric fences, watch towers or snipers and in 2010 the prison received an award for its interior design. Some hallways are tiled with Moroccan tiles or have large scale photographs of Parisian streets or greenery. Exterior walls are not composed of bare concrete, but bricks, galvanised steel and larch wood; as well as birch trees and pine trees flooding the prison grounds which also contribute towards rehabilitation.
Each inmate has his own cell complete with a television, mini-fridge and en suite shower. Prisoners share a common kitchen replete with stainless steel cutlery. In addition to an “Activities House”, the prison offers wood work training and has a mixing studio where inmates can take music classes. Residents even receive questionnaires asking how their prison experience can be improved, exactly like out of a five-star hotel! It is thus not surprising that Halden has been criticised for being too liberal. Despite these cushy conditions, Norway boasts one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world. Norway takes corrections seriously, and recruit wardens have to study various subjects for two years, in addition to work placements.
Moving away from Norway, HMP Addiewell in Scotland is a learning prison, where inmates can address their offending behaviour and the circumstances that led to their imprisonment. Moreover, inmates are given 40 hours a week of purposeful activity aimed at building job skills to allow for a transition back to civilian life.
Whilst Norway builds pleasant looking prisons to aid rehabilitation efforts, a particular prison in Spain takes an innovative approach by creating a family environment within prison walls, literally. Aranjuez Prison has cells specially built to contain small families inside, so that inmates can live with their children, thus preserving the parent-child bond, crucial for growing kids. However, the children may only live there until aged three. Dubbed to be “five star cells”, they come complete with cribs and Disney characters on the walls. There is even a playground for the children. The idea is for children to bond with their parents while young enough not to fully understand the reality of imprisonment, and for inmates seeking rehabilitation to learn parenting skills. Some people think that this is not the most ideal situation and criticise it, saying that the child too is behind bars continuously, and doesn’t get to see animals, nature and the outside stimulation needed to grow. However, others say that it is better than the pains of separation.
The ’cushy’ conditions shown above haven’t come without their criticisms though. Many claim that such conditions are an insult to the victims of crime and focus too much on the offender instead of the victim. Others say that poor people live in worse conditions in their own home, and last but not least that homeless people, many of whom are not criminals, have no roof over their head at all. These criticisms admittedly deserve due merit, which leads to the question of where do governments draw the line? What should be the minimum standard of treatment for prisoners? This would largely depend on the country’s culture and governments’ willingness to invest in such resources, with the aim of reducing crime. Nonetheless one cannot ignore the lower recidivism rates that such rehabilitative efforts could lead to, such as in Norway’s case.