Last week I finished my first session of class and it’s crazy how fast those three weeks went. I was in a Psychology of Criminal Behavior course taught by a Clinical Psychologist working in the Danish prison system and it was fascinating. Our instructor, Christina, has experience working for the Danish Police and is associated with institutions for juvenile detainees so we got an interesting perspective on crime and mental health as well as the Danish justice system.
Specifically, learning about the contrasts between the Danish justice and prison system and the American system showed me the drastic influence that cultural norms have on our beliefs and mindsets. When Christina casually mentioned that many of the Danish prisons do not have locked fences surrounding them and that the average sentence for criminals is six months, the initial reactions that our class had showcased how deep our values rest in the culture we grow up in.
About 60% of inmates are housed in open-prisons that do not have fences and are granted permission to leave to attend school or go to work. While they have strict curfews and rules, they can often buy their own supplies in prison shops and spend free time however they wish. If they don’t follow the rules, they may be moved to a closed-prison. However, many inmates in closed-prisons are still allowed to wear their own clothes, have private family visits, and cook their own meals. The other Scandinavian countries have adopted similar systems and the maximum sentence a criminal can receive is 21 years. The death penalty is also non-existent.
When we visited Sølager, a juvenile prison that Christina works at, it looked more like a summer camp than a place for juvenile delinquents and criminals. Residents of this prison are 12-18 years old and have been placed there either as a result of a court’s decision during a crime investigation or as punishment, or the government has decided they are a danger to themselves and/or others. Regardless of the crime, juveniles can not be tried as adults in Denmark and they will never be placed in adult prisons until they are over 18.
This institution does not resemble what many of us think of when we hear “juvie.” After the 9am-3pm school day of individualized learning of academics and social skills, inmates at Sølager are given the freedom to play sports, go horseback riding, create screen prints, do some wood working, play video games, go to the gym, or even record music in the recording studio. They are also given a $40/week allowance from the government that they can use to buy things from the small prison shop to supply their individual rooms and bathrooms, or they can cook with other inmates in the community kitchen. There are no guards on site, but there are social workers and staff that are always around to interact with the juveniles and help them with whatever they may need. While Sølager is fenced in, residents are able to freely roam the premises and can have frequent, private visits with family and friends.
The core philosophy of the Danish prison system is rehabilitation and the belief that people can change. The goal of prison in Denmark is not to completely isolate inmates from society and seek revenge for their wrongdoings. The Danes see being away from home and losing the freedom to engage with friends and families as enough punishment – they see no reason for making prison sentences harder than they have to be. Inmates still maintain their individual rights while incarcerated, like the ability to vote, and are given flexible visitation rules so that they will be ready to reenter society when their sentence is over.
All of these freedoms may seem excessive and like the opposite of the treatment that you expect criminals to receive. However, this system allows prisoners to feel like they are still valued and care for. Yes, maybe they made a bad decision or got caught up with the wrong crowd, but that does not mean that they immediately lose their value as human beings and members of society. This approach resonates with the saying that two wrongs don’t make a right and instilling prisoners with the belief that their life is worth improving impacts their future behavior.
This is a stark contrast to the punitive and vengeful approach that the U.S. takes when dealing with criminal behavior. But, it turns out that treating prisoners like humans rather than caged animals actually works. The recidivism rates, or the reoccurrence of incarceration, is much lower in Denmark than in the U.S. and it is easier for Danish ex-prisoners to reenter society as contributing members than it is for American ex-prisoners.
I know that you are a probably thinking “this system is outrageous” or “criminals should be punished for the crimes they have committed.” But I suggest trying to take a step back and consider why you feel such a strong opposition to a prison system that believes in treating criminals like human beings. It is likely because the American prison system is all that you know and you are used to cheering with those around you when criminals who have committed horrendous crimes are sentenced to life in prison. This mindset is one that all of my classmates and I struggled to reconsider when presented with a new cultural perspective, and it has been really powerful for me to see another approach.
I am not trying to push an agenda or advocate for the immediate release of American prisoners across the states. While this system seems to be successful for Denmark, that does not mean it would work in the United States in the same way. And I recognize the hurt that many people experience when loved ones are victims of heinous crimes, so I am not suggesting that shorter sentences and relaxed punishment is the answer. However, I think there is value is learning from other cultures and world-views. I am simply asking you to try to separate your preconceived notions about prison systems and the treatment of criminals from the culture that has formed those ideas. Maybe it will shift your perspective or make you more understanding of different viewpoints – it definitely has for me.