The “Little Scandinavia” Prison Project

The Scandinavian Prison Project…seeks to empirically assess what happens when certain practices and principles from Scandinavian corrections are implemented in an American prison setting. The project focuses on an ongoing collaboration between the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC), the Norwegian Correctional Service (Kriminalomsorgen), the Swedish Prison and Probation Service (Krimnalvården), and the Danish Prison and Probation Service (Kriminalforsorgen).

…The “Little Scandinavia” unit differs from the regular conditions of confinement at SCI Chester in many important respects. With single cells, custom furniture, a communal kitchen, redesigned common areas, and an outdoor green space, the unit looks unlike any other. Moreover, the officers on the project have, in addition to travelling to Scandinavia to work alongside peer mentors, received training in conflict resolution, suicide prevention and other relevant skills. The uniquely low ratio of trained staff to incarcerated men is intended to facilitate positive interactions and encourage meaningful communication between the people living and working on the unit.

…Importantly, we chose to use a lottery as opposed to the more common (and to some more intuitive) approach of only allowing the most motivated or best-behaved incarcerated people to move to the unit for two main reasons. First, from an ethical perspective, we believe it is more fair and transparent to the incarcerated men to allow all—irrespective of their past behavior and current standing with staff or management—an opportunity to take part in new, potentially beneficial programs in the prison if they wish to do so. Second, using a lottery means that we can meaningfully compare the group of men housed at “Little Scandinavia” to those in the general population. Having two groups that are as similar as possible—with the exception of their conditions of confinement—is important when seeking to develop evidence on the direct impact of the unit on both in-prison and out-prison outcomes, including recidivism and other measures of community reintegration. The research team will also focus our efforts in the months and years to come on following the staff who work on the unit. In particular, we are interested in learning more about how the changing working environment impacts their stress levels, motivation, and professional identities.

I am very interested in the results of this experiment. Although people say that America is different, I think less brutal prisons and more work on reintegration can work here in principle. One issue is that I can see the experiment working both better and worse as an island in a sea of American prisons as opposed to in full equilibrium.

Kudos to Arnold Ventures for being one of the supporters of the research.

The photo isn’t from the Ikea catalogue but a room in a high-security Norwegian prison.

Hat tip: Matt Bruenig. Photo Credit.

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