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Part 4. "Lock 'em Up!"

This is the 4th of a series of blogs describing my experience in Denmark during the summer of 2018 and conclusions drawn. The ultimate question: Is this model applicable to California?

By instinct, I’m an optimist. I say that in the interest of full disclosure. And I am painfully aware that optimists can easily engage in self-deception and wishful thinking. So I admit to being an optimist but claim to be afflicted by pragmatism and an awareness of the need for skepticism. Essentially, I try to distinguish between what works and what doesn’t.

Skeptics have warned that the Scandinavian model cannot work for us for two reasons. First, our populations are so very different. There are only 6 million people in all of Denmark! Second, our cultures are so very different. The diversity of the American or Californian culture is huge as compared to that of Scandinavia, that their approach can’t possibly work. Both strong arguments. Still, as I pointed out earlier, the Danish rate of recidivism is significantly lower, thus justifying a closer look.

For the sake of clarity, I should say that my research “on the ground” has been accomplished in Denmark so I make use of Danish examples, but the system employed in Norway and Sweden are very similar. In fact, some 14 European countries engaged in similar incarceration practices constitute a kind of consortium for sharing and comparing relevant data. [The program is known as the Reintegration of Ex-Offenders Community of Practice (EXOCOP)].

One major difference between the Danish Open and Closed prison has to do with the risk of violent behavior. Inmates in an open prison may have been convicted of a variety of criminal offenses ranging from something as simple as a hit and run traffic accident to murder if the assessed risk of violent behavior is determined to be low. Most crimes fit these parameters, so about 2/3 of Danish inmates go to the Open prison. The nature of the risk becomes the dependent variable.

In my view, the primary philosophic difference between the two systems may be seen as a difference in goals. In the US, we seek to punish the offender and by using them as examples, deter others from engaging in criminal behavior. There is also a sense of retribution that may bring some level of satisfaction to victims of criminal behavior as well as for the public at large, hence the slogan, “Lock ‘Em Up.”

By contrast, the Danish approach is focused on public safety, which translates to an emphasis on changing the behavior of those who are incarcerated. If the behavior is changed, the risk of reoffending is reduced. Conclusion: a reduction in recidivism translates directly to a reduction in crime that benefits public safety.

Our goals are different. We don’t seek to rehabilitate. We appear convinced that it won’t work and therefore constitutes a risk to society and a waste of resources. To be sure, earlier efforts to rehabilitate were generally underfunded and never accompanied by efforts to “sell” the program to the general public.

That such efforts typically resulted in failure should come as a surprise to no one, nor has it been particularly surprising that the demise of such efforts came at the hands of political expedience. “Three Strikes, You’re Out!” had a certain ring to it. It was simple, it increased the severity of our sentencing practices, and it put repeat offenders where they belonged! To engage in honest public debate amounted to political suicide for those seeking to counter the “tough on crime” position. Opponents were seen as liberal, muddle-headed, human rights activists who failed to understand that a certain percentage of humans were simply animals who deserved and needed to be locked up to insure the safety of society.

We might want to go a bit deeper and explore why our efforts at rehabilitation failed. Were the resources sufficient? Was there sufficient research available to help us with the process? Was there any real and sustained support system in place to help with the process? Was the training program for prison guards adequate? Was there an effort to segregate inmates on the basis of the likelihood of success? Precisely, what was done and why did that approach fail?

I don’t mean to ignore the economics of issue. I have no doubt about a strong connection between the disparity between the rich and poor in this county and the temptation to violate society’s rules. This connection has been consistently made elsewhere, but a remedy is beyond the scope of this paper.

If we turn to the Danish system, it is fair to ask how they accomplish their goal. Does rehabilitation actually work in Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia, and if so, how well?

To begin to answer this question, we might start by exploring the concept of what William Rentzman calls Normalization, a consistent effort to mirror life as it exists on the outside of prison. In making any determination about some activity inside prison should be organized, we need first ask, “How would they have done things in the community at large?” Only then would we ask, “Is there any particular reason to do things differently because they have to work in a prison?”

This principle of Normalization applies to everything from the crafting of educational opportunities to inmates taking responsibility for normal life activities including laundry, health and wellness, making their own meals, and interacting with both staff and other inmates.

The staff – prison guards – are given 3-years of training that includes a focus on both social and psychological guidance. Guards are not armed but they are trained to cope with violence if it happens. They behave, less as friends and more as mentors to the inmates, but no one is in doubt about who is in charge. Bibi was very clear about understanding the need for balance in every transaction with an inmate.

Cells are small but there are no bars. The door has two locks. Each inmate has a key to his/her cell. The other lock belongs to prison guards so cell doors are locked every evening and opened again early each morning.

Inmates take part in the decision making process about internal activities. In this, they come to share responsibility for what goes on in daily life. They are included; not just told what to do. Perhaps for the first time, they come to recognize the value of working together toward a common goal and feel a part of a community, ultimately preparing them for full citizenship after the leave prison.

Given the distinction between the two rates of recidivism, we can at least conclude that a shift in their direction might be desirable.

Tentative Conclusions

The question remains: could such a system work in California’s? Is it reasonable to assume that such an approach could increase public safety by decreasing recidivism, and can this be done at a lower cost than is presently the case? I believe the answer is yes, but the shift will take time and resources. There appears to be no doubt that our current criminal justice system is a costly approach to continued failure. A different approach based on what we have learned from others is at least worth a try. We truly have nothing to lose.

Ours is a society that visualizes chain gangs when it thinks of prison life. To move the needle in a different direction will require nothing less than a change in culture. Voters as well as elected officials will have to be convinced that a different path will achieve our goals more effectively and ultimately be less costly. California now imprisons over 130,000 inmates at an annual cost of over $8.5 billion. The estimated cost for each recidivist is $95,000/yr. Hence an appeal to pragmatism is likely to be most effective. The status quo requires a continuation of enormous expenditures in support of a practice that most acknowledge as a failure.

Like any other complex issue, this one needs to be broken into its component parts. It is not just a question of prison reform or about what happens to the inmate while incarcerated. If we only focus on this one aspect of the criminal justice system, I suspect we will not succeed in our efforts. I don’t propose what follows as an inclusive list, but some of the variables would include:

Sentencing Practices: Based on the notion that no two are alike, to impose the same sentence on all offenders for the same crime without taking into account of the circumstances surrounding the offense or about what might be an increased likelihood for rehabilitation could be a mistake.

We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that long prison sentences are an effective tool for modifying aberrant behavior. Studies of other cultures do not support that contention. Long prison sentences are driven by the need to punish, and to be sure, so long as inmates are incarcerated, they cannot re-offend. Once released, however, their sense of “them and us” has been firmly entrenched and thoughts about reintegrating with law-abiding society stand little chance of implementation. If the behavior that resulted in incarceration is to be modified, some form of rehabilitation must be administered. Bad behavior doesn’t simply disappear by itself. Education is a key to success, and if inmates are to make use of such opportunities, they must first have a sense of hope about the future.

Not every offence requires a prison term. We need to make a distinction between what is criminal and what is merely irritating, the latter might still warrant some punitive sanction such as a fine or public service, but it does not warrant being sent to prison.

Prison Guard Training: I often hear that it is difficult to tell the difference between inmates and prison guards as it relates to being “thugs.” Little wonder. The training of our Corrections Officers takes a few weeks or months and is often accomplished on the job. Emphasis is placed squarely on coping with the anticipated unruly behavior of inmates. There appears to be no emphasis on what might constitute the “correction” side of a Corrections Officer. By contrast, the Danish model is prompted by a different set of assumptions: that the inmate wants to leave prison and not return, and understands that something has to change in him/her if that goal is to be achieved. Danish prison guards, as with most other European systems, receive a minimum of three years intensive training that includes an emphasis on mentoring inmates to achieve their goals.

Post Incarceration Engagement: The process should not stop with “release” from incarceration. Better training while in prison will increase the likelihood that there will be jobs waiting for them after release. If the European model is any indicator, employers will be more eater to embrace them precisely because they have come out of a system that provides effective skills training as well as character building. So there will be a need for a safety net for a period of time after release. We already have some experience with this via the Day Reporting Center.

Cultural Shift: The need for cultural change, both on the part of society and of inmates, represents a. We have come to expect harsh treatment and animosity in response to being the “tough guy;” it will not be easy to make the transition.

A part of this shift will be to enhance our collective ability to learn from others. We seem unwilling to consider good ideas, even if they are shown to have demonstrable merit, if they emanate from some foreign place – like Europe. This is not new. Alexis de Tocqueville made this same observation in Democracy in America, which was based on his 1831 trip to this country for the purpose of studying America’s prison system. His conclusion: if the idea didn’t come from America, it stands a good chance of being rejected. Hopefully, pragmatism, a philosophy uniquely American, will be helpful in overcoming this early tendency. We can and should learn from the experience of others and apply what lessons seem appropriate.

Political Will: Without legislative engagement, needed reforms won’t happen. Members of our state legislature must be convinced that the proposed modifications to our criminal justice system will reduce recidivism substantially, ultimately saving money while increasing public safety. There is much fear in our society, and we humans tend to double down when be become afraid; we hold on to the status quo and see change as risky. Hence, there must be genuine legislative leadership in place, elected officials willing to stand up to those who sell only the seeds of fear. And we must remember that theirs is the shorter argument; ours is more complicated. People don’t vote for “complicated.” Hence, we need to focus on the key arguments in any public forum.

Related to this is the expanding gap between those who have economic power and those who don’t. Time has not been an effective tool in narrowing this gap, and many at the bottom of the socio-economic barrel see their situation as chronic. There is no way up. The popular slogan, “A rising tide floats all boats” may be true, but not if your boat has a gaping hole in it. This is the stuff of which revolution is made. Some argue that criminal behavior is partially justified as it is clear that only those in power make the rules, and they are convinced that those rules are largely designed to keep those at the bottom where they are.

Time: We will have to field test our ideas and draw honest conclusions before venturing forth with a wider application. And even then, we will have to accomplish this shift gradually, being perhaps excessively careful in the selection of inmates who will have the experience of an Open Prison. Not everyone is a candidate! The public nightmare of “Willie Horton” continues to haunt me. No doubt there will be mistakes, and we should be clear about that from the outset. We should remind people that they should not expect perfection.

What they do have a right to expect, however, is a statistically lower rate of recidivism and a safer society because of it.

Testing: Ultimately, we will have to set up some form of testing process that will measure whether and to what extent we can replicate the results achieved by others. I suspect that the political opposition will not be able to stand up against a clear demonstration in which scientific method is applied. We will have to show that the variables often mentioned as reasons why this won’t work are manageable.


A Conclusion: We have begun. There are many in the State of California who are convinced that we have a broken system, and over the last few years, reforms have been developed. There are many groups working for basic reforms in the system. Most argue that the prison guard’s union is most powerful “gate keeper” opposing meaningful reform, so a part of the solution will require that we engage that leadership in conversation as the need for prison guards will continue. They will need to be retrained and properly compensated, and they will need to see their professional objectives in a very different light. Guards will need to shed the harsh persona that has often been attributed to them and learn to become mentors rather than just guards. Harsh treatment will need to be abandoned as it serves to contribute directly to recidivism. Public opinion will be affected by demonstrating that this approach will work.

Admittedly, this transformation will not be easy. There will always be resistance to change.

What if we succumb to this resistance? What if we do nothing? What if we continue with the “Lock ‘em up!” theory of incarceration?

Some have argued that there is little attitudinal difference between prison guards and inmates. While it is doubtful that this perception applies to every corrections officer or prison guard, there is widespread agreement that this is, in fact, the general perception. Their behavior toward inmates is often characterized as brutal and dehumanizing, thus justifying the blame.

But who hires them? Who ultimately pays their salaries? Elected officials empowered to allocate state revenues to pay for all of this do so in the name of the people who they represent.

And there’s the rub. If we do nothing to modify what we now acknowledge as a failed system, we are left with no option but to concede that the responsibility is ultimately ours. We become the perpetrators of the ongoing failure, so perhaps we should admit that Pogo was right: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Shelby Arthur