Sunday, May 16, 2010

PRISONS

The escalating violence, crime, and criminal behavior in our country worries me.

I was amazed when I read about the opening of Halden Prison in Norway last month. Norwegian officials are convinced that treating prisoners -- drug dealers, murderers, rapists -- humanely boosts their chances of reintegrating into society.

To avoid an institutional look, the prison's exterior is brick, wood, and galvanized steel. There's a 20-ft. concrete wall around it but the top edge is rounded and trees obscure the wall. The cells have flat-screen TVs and mini-fridges, no bars on the large vertical windows that let in sunlight. Every 12 cells share a living room and kitchen "laboratory" where prisoners learn to cook.

It took ten years and $252 million to build -- cells for 252 inmates, a sound studio, jogging trails, a cottage inmates can use for overnight visits with their families.

Norway claims rehabilitation works -- within two years of their release, just 20% of Norway's prisoners end up back in jail. In the U.S. (and the U.K.) the figure hovers between 50% and 60%.

"In our prison system, there's a focus on human rights and respect," says Halden Prison's Governor. "We don't see any of this as unusual. We want to build inmates up, give them confidence through education and work and have them leave as better people."

It sounds good, but Norway's prison population is 3,300 ( 69 criminals per 100,000 people compared with 2.3 million in the U.S., or 753 per 100,000 — the highest rate in the world).

My reaction to Halden is based on the MSNBC prison show that I've watched -- a disturbing view of crazy, often out of control, mostly uneducated, ignorant prisoners treated as if they're animals in cages by guards who try to clean up the fecal matter that's thrown at them, and feed and communicate with inmates.

It's not entertaining, this ever-larger world that we taxpayers are sustaining financially. The inmates ... Well, mostly I feel as if I'm viewing the underside of a ugly yard -- bugs, worms, repulsive creatures I don't want to look at -- of course I want the yard to be green grass and flowers.

Halden's attractive cells, "guards without guns," says its Governor, explaining that Guards eat and play sports with the inmates -- gee, if prison isn't punishment isn't it encouraging recidivism -- telling it's criminals "Go commit a crime -- if you're caught, you'll lead a better life, a good life in Halden?"

I'm scowling, shaking my head -- it's unreal, impractical -- it may work in a smaller country like Norway, but it won't work here.

Aside from building more jails, I doubt that there's anything we can do about our over-populated prisons, other than passing laws, and enforcing the cleanup of blockbuster movies, so-called "art" work, ads, promotions, theatrical events that promote violence and horror -- every day more, with bigger box office success, and fame rewarding the creators.

Is violence a price we have to pay for freedom of speech? I don't know. I hope not.

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