New York’s Jails Are Failing. Is the Answer 3,600 Miles Away?

City officials are looking to Norway, whose correctional system is a radical departure from cold, harsh American prisons.

Comments: 81

  1. I don't know if we can match the Norwegian system, but I commend the effort to make the New York system more humane and as a consequence, more effective.

  2. what a wonderful world it would be in this idea came to fruition.

  3. How many drug gang members are in Norway? How many illegal immigrants? How diverse in Norway? When you have a country with a homogeneous population the size of Maryland and a landmass the size of Florida ... with the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world thanks decades of pumping North Sea oil, you have a different socio-economic environment than the United States. So of course, policing and prisons are different.

  4. @Liberty hound Plenty of gangs and drugs here. More than 1 million people are either first or second generation immigrants - from over 100 countries. Oslo is 35 percent immigrants/foreigners now. Nine percent of the country is habitable. The major difference between Norway and the US, is that the US has a violent society, a macho gun culture, and probably the worst public education in the western world.

  5. @Liberty hound No one is suggesting we import Norway's system lock, stock, and barrel. However, if we keep an open mind, perhaps we can improve our pathetically ineffective prison system. There is no longer even a pretense of rehabilitation in US prisons - it's all punitive. People/inmates are treated worse than dogs and we send them out angry at the entire system. This is the problem with America. Every time someone suggests we perhaps import some ideas that work, there is no shortage of people telling us why it won't work. Same with healthcare. Education. Prison system. Keep an open mind.

  6. @Liberty hound Then again, one can profess that the way everything is done in this country is better than the rest of the world and that which isn't is beyond our capability for whatever reason we want to imagine.

  7. I think it's wonderful that NYC is trying to emulate a more rehabilitative model, but I wonder how they will ever overcome the deeply embedded punishment mentality that is part of the American psyche.

  8. Norway's total population is about 5.3 million, versus New York City's 7.5 million. I also understand that NYC's incidence of violent criminals, murderers, etc. is substantially higher than Norway's, so right away there are questions whether it is correct to use Norway's prison system as a model for NYC's jails. Given the large numbers and prevalence of violence-prone convicts in NYC jails, I wonder if it is appropriate to house prisoners in single cells that look rather like college dorm rooms. And the idea of giving prisoners $2,800 per year while serving time is not going to set well with all those who have been harmed by crime; are the prison reformers also budgeting adequate restitution funds for victims? Finally, I wonder how NYC, which has so many pressing social, educational and infrastructure needs, can afford the hugely increased funding required to build and operate these lavish new ails. Clearly the existing jails need to be improved/replaced, but I believe there are limits to the coddling that taxpayers/voters are willing to support. And, while we are working to improve the lot of prisoners, let us not forget our equally important obligations to the victims of crime.

  9. I've been reading about the Nordic countries' prison models (as well as education and social welfare) for some years now and I'm glad to hear that places like New York City, Oregon, and South Dakota are taking steps to adopt a more similar system. Of course Norway is a different country in regards to demographics, but I dislike the defeatist attitude some people have, as if it were impossible to make our prisons and justice system more humane simply because of our size or diversity. The fact is that it's ridiculous people are getting sentenced to such long prison times, disproportionally people of color, and not only is this inhumane because of the time and how they are treated, but also because this prevents many of them from getting high paying jobs after they are released. It's bad for the economy, bad for the morale of the country. Something has to change.

  10. @Kyle In the UK the max term is twenty years, except for the mentally ill. The are not just dumped out the door. They are given a place to live, money and a plan. It seems that once an inmate achieves middle age, they have aged out of the bad ass stage and have maturity to make better choices.

  11. The challenge to incarceration is to let the prisoner know that crime is not tolerated and there are consequences. Currently it seems that crime is being dismissed as a product of racism not a violation of a society's right to live in peace.

  12. @marrtyy Imprisoning someone by definition recognizes society's right to live in peace. And all studies indicated that hardship (= even more violence than what they already went through before they committed their crime) just makes them even more violent when they get out, and THAT goes radically against society's right to live in peace. If you want criminals to behave with more respect of themselves and other people, you have to SHOW them how to do so. It's the only reasonable solution. It's also the only morally responsible solution.

  13. @marrtyy I knew someone would come from this point of view. I taught elementary school and two little boys came to school two hours late every day. The principal could not contact the mother, so he paid her a visit. She came to the door laughing ad naked. Protective services was "working" with her. I moved to the middle school and noticed that both boys were in the "emotionally impaired" classroom. At high school age, both were in prison. They did not have a chance and if, somewhere, they could interact with kindness, perhaps they would have had a chance.

  14. @Ana Luisa The most difficult problem facing prisoners is not institutional but prisoner to prisoner. A lot of prisoners in New York are incarcerated for what is known as "black on Black" crime. They have little or no respect for each other when free... and that becomes exacerbated when incarcerated. How do we fix that... I haven't a clue.

  15. "“Treating people with respect and dignity and humanity is key to making things safer and the lives of people incarcerated more meaningful.” That sounds so obvious, and yet, in the US so many people (mainly conservatives?) still deny this basic truth. Human beings are "social animals". Put them in an extremely violent environment, and they'll become violent. Put them in a truly humane environment, where they can learn what respect and dignity actually mean, and they'll start behaving totally differently. Punishing criminals feels nice for those who aren't. It also makes them often even worse, once they get out. So it's great to see that Norwegians stopped deluding themselves and finally started investing in their criminals in such a way that things actually improve.

  16. I am a college professor in a NY State prison. My students, for the most part, have been saddled with a lifetime of failure. I take my job seriously, making certain they learn college level writing skills, and are engaged intellectually. I have organized my classroom with desks in a circle so that the students engage with each other and with me, and as a result, the cohort grow close. I also make myself available to students after release, to help them manage life, and encourage them to continue with their educational pursuits. We often lose sight of the fact that most of the men and women who are incarcerated will one day be released. Instead, we are blinded by our desire for old testament retribution, to continually punish those who have violated societal laws. Yet failing to prepare and support prisoners for eventual release into society not only fails these them, as supported by our high recidivism rates, but endangers all of us.

  17. @Max T You are an example to us all; thank you for your insight and your compassion.

  18. @Max T Thank you for the work you do, and for your input here. I agree with you but I think the "old testament retribution" is merely a convenient moralistic cover for the profit motive of the prison industrial complex.

  19. Building new jails for twice the price of 8 billion could be a real good investment while building jails for 1 billion could be a total waste of money. What does matter is how the inmates are treated by the correctional officers and the prison system in general. If the mentality and way with which the system is run now, where being in prison is the system's way of exerting revenge, nothing will ever change.

  20. Norway is indeed different. In 2012, terrorist Andres Breivik murdered 77 people and got 21 years. Accounts of his prison life show that he’s not walking the path of rehabilitation. If he gets out in 2033, he will be 54 and presumably still willing and able to kill more people.

  21. @JM -- did you read the article? It said that Breivik's 21-year sentence can be increased 5 years at a time if/when he gets to the end of it.

  22. This is not quite accurate. The Norwegian legal system distinguishes between prison (“fengsel”) and confinement (“forvaring”). For confinement sentences, there will be a review of whether there is an unacceptable risk of new crimes at the end of the initial confinement period. Is that is found to be the case, confinement will be continued, usually for five year periods. There are several examples of people serving 30-40 years until death. It seems reasonable to assume the same will happen in this case.

  23. @JM Don't worry.... He will not be released, until he is 100% rehabilitated, which will probably never happen.

  24. I think they should try this in New Hampshire, which has demographics and homicide rates that are relatively similar to Norway. (I mention homicide rates because they are the only truly accurate crime statistic, and therefore serve as the most accurate index of serious crime.)

  25. @Freddy If the rates in New Hampshire are already similar to the rates in Norway, then what's the point? Reform is only meaningful if the homicide rate decreases.

  26. Reform is more difficult when you have a feral population that has been generations in the making, products of single mothers sometimes on drugs, themselves the same, a drug culture, a disdain for education. New York City, for example, is not Concord, New Hampshire. In our urban areas, our criminals aren't men who took a bad turn -- mostly they are men who never took a good turn.

  27. @B. I do not believe we have a “feral population”. Our people are not animals to be caged, but we treat our poor like it. Maybe Norway’s low crime rate is actually the product of a healthy social system? Their prison model is an extension of their social system, not an aberration from it. Likewise, so are our brutal and dehumanizing U.S. prisons.

  28. Norway's compassionate prison system was included in a Michael Moore movie, "Where To Invade Next," which I saw a couple of years ago. There were other notable segments in the film, such as the one on school lunches in France. I do recommend seeing this.

  29. “Where To Invade Next” was a very good movie. Why does the US refuse to look around at other countries for examples of how to implement a real social welfare system?

  30. That's because in Norway the purpose is to rehabilitate and prepare prisoners for their eventual release back into society, whereas in the US, it's to "lock'em up and throw away the key".

  31. @Matt I'm sorry but if a man rapes and murders 3 year old girl, there's no way he should get out in 21 years (like in Norway) even if they "find God" in prison.

  32. And then there are the two men who raped, murdered, and set fire to the Cheshire, Connecticut woman and her two daughters. One of them says he has gender dysphoria and is undergoing gender transition in prison. And if he does "become" a woman, where will he imprisoned? With men? With women? Isolation is illegal. He will petition to be released from jail and might win. A travesty. I'm not a fan of the death penalty, but I'd make an exception for these guys.

  33. We can certainly talk about reforming living conditions, yet you can't have a discussion about prison reform without addressing first principles like literacy rates. In the US, the vast majority of prisoners remain functionally illiterate when they leave prison. Other reforms are not going to make a dent if ex-cons can't read or write. My guess is, in Norway, the entire population, including ex-cons, have a much higher literacy rate than the US.

  34. @Chris As someone from Norway's neighbour Sweden, you have illiterate people?

  35. I think another key difference is the existence of a functioning welfare state in Norway. Recidivism rates in the nordic countries are far lower than in the US. We need to implement a adequate safety net, whether that includes universal basic income, universal healthcare, etc. so that when people get out of prison they can escape the cycle of poverty and crime, and hopefully communities will largely avoid getting into those situations in the first place. Otherwise we will have the continual back and forth between people who want to make prison more humane and lower recidivism rates, and those who want prison to be a punishment and justifiably don't want to give the people in prison advantages like "free" college or job training that people who haven't committed crimes are not able to access.

  36. “A functioning welfare state.” What a wonderful thing that would be to finally have here in the US.

  37. “Norwegian officials have explained their approach as the honorable way to treat people, arguing that anything less would reflect poorly on the country.” But Ms. Glazer, one of the authorities cited in the article, points out that this is beyond our scope. Unfortunately, she is surely correct, but not because we don’t have the resources.

  38. 'In nearly every measurable way, the Norwegian correctional system is a radical departure from cold, harsh American prisons and jails. ' So are the prisoners and social milieu. Good luck with looking to Norway, and especially good luck with handing out cell phone numbers, if it comes to that.

  39. @ss For class, I've been reading Ghosts from the Nursery, a book about the roots of violence in young males. It's a sobering read on the biological, environmental and societal factors that propel young kids towards violence, an intergenerational cycle that is almost impossible to break. Perhaps the Norway model represents a path forward to breaking the chain.

  40. @Jeannie Park Another thing. In the US, a child sees 18,000 murders on TV and in films by the time he or she is 18 years old. In Norway, that would be impossible - it just doesn't happen. American life grooms violent behavior.

  41. In 2016, in the Oslo police district alone, there were 7,500 cases prosecuted - that is, the police and the prosecutor's office had decided that they should be prosecuted - where no judgment has been given. Norwegian and foreign criminals fail to appear in court, prosecutions and judgments are not served. And the criminals go free. Many of these people have 40+ crimes on their rap sheets, and still there is no prison sentence. Then there are those who are evaluated as too sick to go to prison, but not sick enough to be hospitalized. These go free also.

  42. @Harry Isn't Norway a safer society, though? As for those who are too ill for prison - do they represent a real risk?

  43. @Jeannie Park Yes, it is a much safer society, though all of Scandinavia is in decline with regards to crime, especially Sweden. And yes, those that are too ill for prison represent a real risk, unfortunately.

  44. Maybe. The big question is whether Norway has the prison demographics that US prisons have? US prisons are riddled with vicious gangs and racial tension. Plus our entire criminal justice system is more centered on retribution than rehabilitation. I think other elements of American society probably need to change before we can do anything about our jails.

  45. This style of rehabilitation has proven to be much more effective in many places. I hope that I see it come here someday. It would do our country well to remember that incarceration is rehabilitation, not retribution.

  46. @Sarah Why should I pay to "rehabilitate" someone? They had their shot, and blew it. Prisons are to act as a deterrent, not as psychotherapists. All organisms adjust their behavior according to positive and negative contingencies. If you want to give prisoners positive contingencies, then move them in next door to you.....not to me.

  47. @Sarah Unfortunately, approx (I'm guessing) 95% of our citizens and prison employees see prison as punishment rather than as correctional, or rehabilitative.

  48. @Travelers Because their intent is to rehabilitate. That is what they are set up to do.

  49. Why not buy rural land to relocate prisons? Shuttle systems for visitors could be run. NYC land is so valuable this pays for itself.

  50. I think that the way the citizens of New York City and Norway see incarcerated people means a lot to how they are treated. Understanding a criminal life and the psychology of how they did things could improve how they are treated in the prisons.

  51. As part of the process of reforming the system, they should eliminate bail for non-violent offenders. This would reduce the inmate population and lower the costs to say nothing of the benefit to the person accused. When a defendant has to remain incarcerated because he or she can't make bail they may lose their job and other opportunities.

  52. @Jeff Brown I whole-heartedly agree. "Jail or bail" is similar to pronouncing an individual guilty before trial by jury. The other reform I would like to see is the withholding of a suspect's name and photo until the jury declares "guilty." All we need to know is that "a suspect has been apprehended." After the trial, the story can read, "In the case of Ms Doe's rape and murder on E Street, Dec, 2017, a recent lengthy trial ended with the jury returning a guilty verdict for Mr Joe Roe who has been sentenced to 30 years to life at Dannemorra.

  53. During my medical training, I took of people in the system and was struck by the lack of disrespect I encountered. I was young and female. I certainly had my qualms about dealing with people in jail and in prison and there was a guard present during their visits. Nevertheless, I found if you try to treat people with some degree of dignity, they often return that. I rarely felt threatened or even insulted.

  54. How many for profit-private prison we have in America? Until we don't eliminate this private-for profit prisons, we cannot talk about any prison improvements here.

  55. Socialism works! In my humble opinion, nothing works better than having the entire population contribute toward helping one another maintain at home and through permanent employment or relearn (in prison) that we are all together in the quest for dignity, rights, health, well-being and safe, comfortable living environments. Norway is a model. Does America have the courage to follow? Warren for President....Fix this country and become great in a more meaningful way.

  56. The prison for profit starts at the root, the individuals who rack up continuous arrests for pretty offenses. It then escalates to the lawmakers who establish 3 strike laws and worse. As a reward to business and unions more jobs are created to support the system in the form of prisons. The citizens are now the product.

  57. New York is not anywhere near as homogeneous as Norway. I would like to see the way they treat prisoners in Singapore. It has a great reputation as being a safe society.

  58. Very interesting! Would love to see some of these ideas used in the United States. Prison reform is long overdue!

  59. Innocent people sometimes go to jail or prison. Jails are for pre-trial inmates as well as for people serving misdemeanor sentences. As for prisons, criminologists estimate that between two and eight percent of convicted felons are in fact innocent. (Source: JS Rakoff, "Why Innocent People Plead Guilty," NY Review of Books, 2014) What would you want New York's jails to be like, knowing there are innocent people confined there? I'd want them to be more like Norway's.

  60. I can’t recall the last time I heard any criticism about the Australian prison system. We have had our own issues with deaths of indigenous men in custody, but by and large the system appears to work well and with a level of dignity.

  61. Prison reform has nothing to do with identity or homogeneity, as one comment suggested. Nor does it have anything to do with profit, as another suggested. Most prisons are not for-profit. It has to do with a society that is committed to punishment rather than rehabilitation. I teach in a college program in a high-security men’s prison. The prison library where I teach looks nothing like the one in the Norwegian prison. There is no light, few books - everything is grey. Moreover, the 1994 crime bill, which Senator Biden helped write, made inmates ineligible to receive Pell grants to go to college. Consequently, there is little money to run important college programs. The number of incarcerated students in college is a fraction of what it could be. Even though studies show education in prison reduces recidivism. Reverse the Pell grant prohibition and society becomes safer. My students, like most inmates in the US, have committed violent crimes. But they are not violent anymore. They are educated now and they’re looking forward to their release so that they can begin productive lives and contribute to society.

  62. Yet another article in the NYT’s ongoing efforts to develop sympathy for criminals and make it appear that criminals are actually victims. To set the record straight, victims of crimes are the true victims; the perpetrators—and those who aid, abet and participate in crime with them—are criminals. I hope all the progressive prosecutors--and Democratic Presidential candidates--will give serious thought to what it means to eliminate bail, reduce sentences and allow criminals to run loose in our communities. Who is responsible for post-release crimes committed by those released early? An apology to their future victims will be of small consolation for those who are harmed; and how about compensation and restitution for the actual victims? Early release or release without bail of thousands of criminals is a recipe for increased crime, and increased numbers of victims. (Check federal statistics of recidivism rates—very sobering.) Virtually no criminals are forced to commit their crimes; there is such a thing as free will.

  63. Why do prisons have to be constructed in the midst of densely populated neighborhoods? Why can't they be constructed in a suburb or in upstate New York where there is a lot of land to implement some of these ideas? Also, the article does not talk about the daily routine of prisoners in Norway prisons. We see a picture of a very decent single room for a prisoner. Is the case that all prisoners have single rooms? One of the nightmares of prison life may well be the cell mates prisoners end up in very constrained spaces, evoking other torments such as those evoked in Sartre's play "Hell is Other People." The gardening program in NYC's Rikers Prison recently covered in the NYT seemed like a simple and wonderful possibility to include in the new prisons. They are a step in the direction of Norway's more humane incarceration system, a system that works with the possibility of rehabilitation and at the very least opportunity for moments of peace and contact with nature outside the super crowded prison walls of the main prison. May I recommend the podcast series "Ear Hustle" featuring stories about prisoners' life in San Quentin prison, produced by Nigel Poor and prisoners living inside. This was part of an eye opening exhibition at Berkeley Art Museum on the San Quentin Project.

  64. @tdb Perhaps the reasons for prison siting in densely populated areas include easier access to the prison by inmates' relatives, friends, lawyers, and the need for housing for the prison's employees, including guards. This housing problem can be an obstacle when hiring qualified people for these jobs.

  65. @tdb Have you seen this "gardening" program at Rikers? Didn't think so. They make a bunch of programs up to appear nice, however almost nothing is upholded and put into effect.

  66. The article was about reforming the jails in NYC, not the prisons. They are two different things.

  67. Interesting. "Romerike averages about three or four use-of-force incidents per week, though the vast majority do not involve a weapon; New York City averages about 18 per day." Author, why do you put these two figures together without comparing overall numbers and percentages. Can't we expect more from NYTimes's reporting?

  68. Norway is a country of 4 million people where everyone is white, speaks Norwegian and is Christian. It's much easier to build an emphatic criminal justice system under those conditions as compared to America where most inmates and arrestees are minorities and most police officers are racist white guys from Staten Island (generalizing).

  69. @John O Norway is 5.5 million people, and has a major population of Middle Eastern and north African people. Norwegians hold some christian values, but mostly this is a secular society.

  70. Welp once again we compare ourselves with and aspire to the great Scandinavian Nirvana - only problem is as always we are not Norway - we have 100 times the population and 100 times the problems in that population - the violent culture fostered in our prisons and then exported to the streets is not present in Norge - so to try to superimpose their system on ours is at best naive and at worst a big waste of time and money, but surprise the keystone cops who run this city will take full advantage of a paid boondogle to Norway just to say they tried. Yay! When they come back they will be wringing their hands to serve the perps and cons and to secure their own pensions, the only people losing will be the average new yorker walking down the street assaulted by one of their darlings newly released with a cup of yogurt and a reindeer hat -

  71. As others have expressed, Norway looks to rehabilitate criminals so they can rejoin society while New York and America only care about punishing criminals.

  72. Well, putting that actress in jail for bribing a college to admit her daughter was put there in order to be punished, no? Ditto Martha Stewart. I guess we punish only some people -- but when it suits us, we want prison to rehabilitate people. Some won't be rehabilitated. A guy with a long rap sheet, who's been brought in and let go by lenient judges, isn't the sort of guy who's in a Norwegian jail.

  73. I wonder if there is a gang culture in Norway's prisons. US jails have to deal with MS 13, United Blood Nation, Aryan Brotherhood and many others. These gangs are their members safety net. Hard to imagine Norway model working well with the hard core gangs on the US.

  74. Yes. Let's make Prisons very pleasant places. That way people won't stop misbehaving because, hey, if they do misbehave then there is a 5-star hotel waiting for them!!!

  75. Is there an analysis of the crimes committed in Norway vs the US? That would be my first step in any analysis. Does Norway have the gangs, poverty etc.

  76. Whatever is done, overcrowding has to be job #1. The Los Angeles County jail system houses 120% of inmate capacity, and that is with just about every non-violent offender being released super-quickly. Case in point: I know a third-time DUI convict sentenced to 180 days who was released in 31 hours. Same thing for non-violent drug offenders, burglars, etc. Meanwhile, the police are closing less than 25% of burglaries. If half of all misdemeanor personal or property crime criminals were caught and convicted, and did 50% of their sentences they'd need twice as many jails, if not three times.

  77. Much is possible once you let go of base notions of retribution and look instead at the big picture for society and the individual. Scandinavian countries start from the premise that we're in this together whereas in the U.S. we tend to start from a premise that everybody is an independent island of free will. Also of course, pervasive and institutionalized racism.

  78. Police and guarding jobs are very very attractive to the exact people you do not want doing those jobs: abusers. This means that screening, constant training, and discipline at the ground level are required, of course, but equally importantly it requires *accountability for the management for not creating systems that provide that screening, training, and discipline*. That accountability at the top can ultimately only come from voters. It's obvious that too many in this country believe that abusing someone that is under your complete control is ok if you think they are "bad." NO. WRONG. Using force against someone who is under your control is never honorable, moral, or ethical, and it certainly is not productive--it only produces more abuse. Police and others in authority must be held to the highest standards. By us.

  79. The USA cannot will not give up slavery and that is really what this is all about. From our crimes against humanity by launching a stupid war on chemical compounds, to the biggest disgrace our for profit prisons listed on the stock exchange. We as a country are so foul as to trade our slaves publicly then brag about the Dow average.

  80. Norway doesn't has the racist history, the U.S. have, they are not locking up black people, for general purposes....JS. Not going to work here, too much racism in our criminal justice system.