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Part 2: A Visit to a Danish "Open" Prison

The author, Peter Haslund in front of Horserød prison.

The author, Peter Haslund in front of Horserød prison.

There is a tall, barbed wire fence around Horserød prison, designed not so much for keeping inmates in, but more for keeping gang members out! Horserød is an "Open Prison" in Denmark. It is reserved for those convicted and sentenced for a range of criminal behavior ranging from an alcohol related car accident to murder. 

The critical variable in figuring out if you go to a closed or open prison is the determination about whether you might become violent. This means that about 2/3 of Danish prisoners are housed in one of the open prisons in this small country. 

I was curious about the general goals of such a program, and Bibi, my prison guard, was quick to tell me that the most important long-term goal was to secure a more safe society, which translated directly to a reduction of recidivism, that is, the tendency to re-offend after being released. I asked if punishment was also a goal, and yes, of course, but punishment is seen simply as the deprivation of liberty for a specified period of time. They believe that the addition of harsh treatment only serves to reinforce the behavior they seek to change. 

So they don't! Harsh treatment is avoided. 

Life inside an open prison is designed to reinforce "normal" behavior. In some cases, this may be an inmate's first introduction to what the rest of society sees as "normal." For example, prisoners are required to do their own laundry, repair their own clothes, purchase their own groceries, make their own meals and take advantage of educational opportunities that may be available. Inmates are also required to work either inside or outside the prison for which they are fairly compensated. At the end of the day, they are required to be back in their rooms. If they elect not to go to work, their doors are locked and they remain in their rooms for the rest of the day. 

About their rooms: there are two locks. One lock provides a sense of privacy for inmates so each has their own key to enter or lock their rooms when they leave. The other belongs to the prison guard, and all rooms are locked by those guards at the end of the day. Each room has either one or two inmates, normally just one. There is a small refrigerator and a separate bath. If there is a television set, they or their family must supply it. I visited several rooms, and guards always asked the inmate if it was OK to come in. Inmates were friendly and eager to have me see their place of residence! 

Work is generally accomplished inside the prison but exceptions are made, especially for inmates who are approaching their date of release.  There was a well equipped carpentry shop in the prison, and inmates construct furniture and other goods required  by local merchants.  In some instances, inmates learn a new craft; for others, it is a place to hone their skills before returning to the outside.

Bibi -- my escort while on the prison grounds -- is an 18 year veteran as a prison guard. She received 3 years of training in order to serve in this capacity, much of which was focused on helping prisoners modify their behavior. She saw her role as a balance between being an empathetic mentor and a clear source of discipline. She said that inmates saw her both as a mentor and as a source of irritation and discipline. She clearly recognized the need for a clear understanding of this two-part role, but it was common to see her speaking casually with inmates.

I asked Bibi about the importance of trust. She indicated that trust was an essential element in the inmates therapy that required her to keep inmate conversations and concerns confidential unless there was a clear and urgent need to do otherwise.

Two questions come to mind. First, does this approach work for Denmark? Clearly, the answer is "yes." While our recidivism rate hangs at around 70%, Danish officials indicate their rate to be about 26%.  Then they add, “But we can do better!”

The second and perhaps more vexing question: could it work for us? Are there aspects of the Danish experience that could be applied to California’s incarceration practices? This is a much more complicated question that I hope to address in a subsequent blog.

Cyndi Burt