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Adopting Denmark's Unorthodox Prison System Could Benefit Ex-Offenders in America

Some Scandinavian detainees live and work like regular citizens despite criminal convictions. Would so-called 'open prisons' work in the US?

by Alexis Chemblette
Nov 28 2017, 8:30pm

Photo via DoD.

In the last 40 years, the U.S. prison population spiked 500 percent, while the country’s overall population increased by 46 percent. Today the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 2.3 million prisoners nationwide.But nearly as striking is America’s recidivism rate with 76.6 percent of ex-offenders re-arrested within five years.

Most American prisoners experience punishing conditions that make them ill-prepared for reintegration at the end of their sentences. What’s worse, isolation and mental and physical abuses breed resentment towards the system, which in turn perpetuates more potential crime. Former President Barack Obama railed against such forces working against ex-offenders in a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, suggesting that roughly 100,000 American prisoners are currently in solitary confinement.

It’s a dire situation, but across the Atlantic, Nordic prisons have adopted an opposite approach which has yielded substantially lower incarceration and recidivism rates ( ten and three times lower respectively) at lesser costs.

The guiding principle underpinning Scandinavian criminal justice policy is that treating prisoners humanely effectively makes them more prone to rehabilitation. Consider Denmark. Most inmates serve sentences in open prisons - facilities in which prisoners are subject to minimal supervision - which allow them to continue their studies or pursue a part-time job outside prison walls. Even the most serious offenders are not locked in cells, wear their own clothes, cook their own meals, and are treated with dignity.

VICE Impact met with Anne Marie Heckscher, area manager of Denmark’s Prison and Probation Service, to discuss how Denmark’s prison system narrows the social distance between inmates and everyday citizens.

VICE Impact: What’s Denmark’s “open prison” system like ?

Anne Marie Heckscher: Denmark has both open and closed prisons. Most of our facilities are open. Roughly 60 percent of all inmates are placed in open-prisons. And we must also keep in mind that most prisoners in closed facilities will finish their sentences in open prisons.


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I like to define an open-prison as a prison without a fence. It is outward-looking on society. We mapped green zones near the prison where prisoners are entitled to go and red zones where they aren’t allowed to. Prisoners are granted all sorts of leaves to visit family, go to work or go to school. They have strict curfews, of course, and if they don’t respect the rules in place, they can be moved to a closed-prison.

Walk us through a typical day of an inmate in an open-prison ?

They get up around seven o clock. They prepare their own food in shared kitchen areas. They buy their own supplies in prison shops which offer most goods available in grocery stores. Then they either leave to school or work or participate in education and training programs dispensed inside the prison. In the afternoon they return to prison, and do their laundry, clean their cells and take part in other activities in common areas as one would do at home.

Prisoners get paid for the work they do or the education they receive. They get the equivalent of the minimum unemployment benefits allocated to Danish citizens. Every prisoner has his own cell with a television and a bookshelf. And they share bathrooms and toilets.

Which categories of criminals are placed in open prisons ?

Our policy is very clear. We want most offenders to serve their sentences in open prisons. Ideally all prisoners, but those who pose a threat to society. It’s not about the crime they committed it’s about how we expect them to behave. Psychopaths, terrorists, and prisoners that have previously escaped are the only examples of prisoners that will systematically be locked in a closed prison.

So someone who committed homicide can be placed in an open prison?

Absolutely, if we have determined that they don’t pose a threat to society. Someone who is perfectly sane is entitled to a spot in an open-prison. Again, they may start in a closed-prison, but eventually, they will serve the remainder of their sentences in an open-prison.

How has it helped ensure low recidivism rates ?

All the evidence points to a strong correlation between open prisons and low recidivism rates. Currently, our overall recidivism rate stands at 24 percent but keeping in mind that it’s around 40 percent in closed prisons. The recidivism rate in open prisons is close to 19 percent.

Our prison system has a twofold objective: protect society, but also encourage convicted criminals to wean off their criminal mindset, which is actually the same objective. If we can get them educated, if we can get them a job if we can get them to get rid of their alcohol or drug problems, they are more likely to seek a different path than crime. And our results are uncontestable. Most inmates given those chances will not reenter crime .

Does Denmark’s population feel like these conditions fulfill a sense of justice ?

When we first established open-prisons they drew criticism, and we faced stiff opposition. But Denmark’s prison system is overseen by highly trained and experienced civil servants who have worked for years in our penitentiary system. Elected politicians have minimal sway. So the population seemed reluctant at first but accepted that we try this new method. And although it may seem surreal that we allow people who committed homicides go to school or do an apprenticeship, the Danish people have been convinced by our extraordinary results.

They understand that open prisons are the most effective system to curb crime and they recognize that it’s not useful to add more agony to the lives of people who were stripped of their liberty. And the evidence shows that harsher conditions can make offenders more dangerous when they're released.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

VICE Impact launched the Vote Now campaign to shed light on what's working and what's not with the electoral system and to support of the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) Let People Vote effort, which aims to give people who have have served their time the right to vote and better reintegrate into society.

The ACLU is encouraging people to take action through the People Power initiative, which targets Florida and other other states with archaic voter suppression laws tied to non-violent felony convictions.

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