February 28, 2013

A tale of two prison systems: Whither the future?

Group therapy, San Quentin Prison, California
California's beleaguered prison system got more bad headlines today for suppressing a report warning that prison suicide-watch practices were actually fostering suicide. The suppressed report, by a national expert on prison suicide, described suicidal prisoners being stripped of their clothes, placed in “safety smocks,” and then held for days "in dim, dirty, airless cells with unsanitized mattresses on the floor," according to today's Los Angeles Times. The horrific conditions encouraged prisoners "to declare they were no longer suicidal just to escape the holding cells. Many of them took their own lives soon after."

The state directed its consultant, Lindsay Hayes, to write a sanitized version of his report to give to a court monitor and lawyers for prisoners, according to court records reviewed by Times reporter Paige St. John. And when prisoner lawyers were nonetheless able to get a copy of the full report, which called the treatment of suicidal prisoners "punitive" and "anti-therapeutic," the state made an unsuccessful effort to have a judge order the report destroyed.

There were 32 prison suicides in California in 2012, above the national average in the United States.

Convict sunbathing on porch of his bungalow,   
Bastoy Prison (photo credit: Marco Di Lauro)
Meanwhile, more than 5,000 miles and an ocean away, sits a peaceful island prison which has not seen a single suicide in its two decades of operation. Bastoy, an island prison in Norway, with no bars or concertina fences, bills itself as "the first ecological prison in the world."

It might not seem fair to compare California prisons with those in Norway, a small and homogeneous nation with only 4,000 prisoners all told. But Norway's forward-looking penal philosophy is worth a gander. The idea is to build people up into productive citizens, rather than to tear them down. To "generate hope instead of despair" in the words of Erwin James, himself a former prison lifer in the UK who recently toured Bastoy and wrote about it for the Guardian

Debarking from the ferry, James found an atmosphere more akin to a religious commune than the British prisons he was accustomed to. "There is a sense of peace about the place," he wrote, describing the brightly painted wooden bungalows where the island's 115 prisoners live in groups of up to six, cooking their own meals with money earned from prison jobs and food purchased at the "well-stocked mini-supermarket."

A quick dip after work, Bastoy Prison
Norway has no death penalty or life sentences; the maximum sentence is 21 years. Prisoners can apply to Bastoy when they are down to the last five years of their sentences. They must commit to non-violence and a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle.

Who wouldn't take a deal like that, to live in an idyllic beach resort while learning the life skills necessary to reintegrate into society? Even when the sea ice was frozen solid last winter, not a single convict walked away.

"In closed prisons we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking," explains director Arne Nilsen, a clinical psychologist. "In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings."

The proof of Norway's philosophy is in the pudding: Balstoy's re-offense rate of just 10 percent is by far the lowest in Europe. Compare that to California, where seven out of ten released prisoners bounce back into custody within three years, the highest rate in the United States.

Click on image to see 5-minute YouTube feature on Bastoy
One of the guards showing James around the island looks at him with disbelief when he tells her that prison officer training in the UK lasts only six weeks. In Norway, the training takes three years. Here in California, meanwhile, basic training lasts 16 weeks, with a focus on "effective use of force," "restraint devices" and "cell searches."

Ad for prison suicide smock
And what, pray tell, are the guards in Norway spending all of that time studying?

"There is so much to learn about the people who come to prison," the guard explains to James. "We need to try to understand how they became criminals, and then help them to change."

With a rehabilitative philosophy like that, let's just hope that Bastoy -- and not California or the UK -- represents the way of the future. After all, by treating prisoners with respect and humanity, Norway is also creating a safer world.
Hat tip: Jane


Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

The blog "A PUBLIC DEFENDER" has an interesting followup to this post ... available HERE.

Cavall de Quer said...

As an aside - don't the people in these prison systems have terrible vitamin D deficiencies? It's not like they can get their 10 minutes optimum sunshine whenever they want, is it?

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Interesting point, Cavall de Quer. The insufficient sunshine is compounded by neuroleptic and anti-epileptic medications that interfere with Vitamin D. A new study found a similar deficiency in forensic psychiatric patients: http://bit.ly/ZDFovt.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Franklin, your link to the follow-up argument no longer works. Can you repost the article here?

Cavall de Quer, was your comment about the Vitamin D genuine or sarcastic?...