Taking responsibility for our prisons: lessons to be learnt from Norway

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By Dr Anna Kotova, Lecturer in Criminology
Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology, University of Birmingham

Only about 25% of former prisoners in England and Wales are in employment after release, as per the government’s 2016 figures [ii]. About half of employers would not consider employing someone who had been to prison [iii].

In a recent interview with Jon Snow on Channel 4, Rory Stewart, the Minister of State for Prisons, spoke about the state of our prisons, with a focus on HMP Nottingham, where prisoners have recently taken their own lives.

Stewart appeared to recognise that in order to fix our prisons, troubled by record levels of self-harm and suicides, we need to look beyond the criminal justice system. He spoke about the certain need for more and better-trained prison staff. When challenged with the question whether these proposals are simply a Band-Aid, the Minister spoke about engaging with issues of social injustice: including lack of employment and poor mental health. He rightly noted that prisoners are behind fences, the public rarely know  what prisons are like and who is in them. Stewart argued that this needs to be addressed by re-engaging the whole of society.

Lessons to be learnt from Norway’s prisons:

More egalitarian societies – those that have lesser levels of extreme poverty, class divisions, and so forth – also tend to be less punitive. For example, in Norway, prisons are underpinned by the principle of normalisation. The Norwegian Correctional Service states that ‘during the serving of a sentence, life inside will resemble life outside as much as possible’. In other words prisoners are not portrayed as evil monsters to be cast out of society: they even take part in televised political debates. Norway is also a more egalitarian society when it comes to poverty with a comparatively generous welfare state, free education, and other aspects of social justice. To illustrate: the average household net-adjusted disposable income in the UK is 28,408 USD, compared to 35,739 USD in Norway [i]. Norway should not be idealised, for it has its own problems – for example, issues to do with refugees. Nonetheless, it is a comparatively more egalitarian society than England and Wales, as the above examples show.

England and Wales, however, remain fairly exclusionary. Our prisoners are drawn from some of the most economically and socially excluded communities, as demonstrated by a seminal Social Exclusion Unit report in 2002. Only about 25% of former prisoners in England and Wales are in employment after release, as per the government’s 2016 figures [ii]. About half of employers would not consider employing some who ad been to prison [iii]. This statistic is in comparison to Norway, where about 60-70% of first-time offenders were in employment after release, as per a 2016 study [iv].

Removing the ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ barrier

If the deep-rooted problems plaguing our prisons are to be addressed, we need to see fundamental social change. We need to learn to see prisoners as people – people who will return to our communities – rather than irredeemable “dangerous others”. The key to understanding why prisoners are seen differently in Norway, it seems, is the concept of Association Value. If a person is perceived as having a high Association Value – for example, being our own kin, having a recognisable social productivity, or when he or she expresses remorse – we are more likely to be less punitive [v]. This is more difficult when prisoners are severely socially excluded, in terms of their employment, mental and physical health, class and education. Such stark division between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ makes it easier for society to cast prisoners aside as those who hold low Association Value.

‘The buck absolutely stops with me’, Rory Stewart declared, taking responsibility for the future of our prisons.  The fact that he realises that the problem is rooted not simply in funding but in fundamental issues of social injustice is key, and it is refreshing to see that the Minister has spoken so openly about this. He promised to take Jon Snow to HMP Nottingham in 12 months’ time: it will certainly be interesting to see how far the Minister’s courage will have improved this prison in particular, as well as the prison system in general.

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