Center for Global Dialogue

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Part 3: William Rentzmann, Architect of the Danish Approach

William Rentzmann is the former Director-General of the Danish Prison and Probation System. He retired about 5 years ago after a distinguished career during which he became recognized as the architect of the Danish approach to incarceration as well as a source of considerable influence within the European Union.  I spent an afternoon with him in a small enclave north of Copenhagen called Tisville.  He had just returned from an international conference held in London that focused on best practices for prison reform.

He pointed out that much had changed since he started work in this area.  Drugs, gangs and radicalization have evolved since he began, so the system has had to adjust to cope with these changes.  Society itself has also been subject to change as are the educational challenges for students both in and out of prison.  Hence, rule #1—be prepared to change; be flexible.  While a static system may be more comfortable, it is likely to fail if it doesn't take account of emerging realities.

A core principle of the Danish system – this applies to Sweden and Norway as well – is the concept of normalization.  That is, so far as is possible, life inside prison should reflect the positive aspects of what goes on outside, hence an even greater need for flexibility just to keep up.  The goal is to reduce the differences between what goes on inside the prison as compared to what happens on the outside.

How does this work?

Inmates are expected to take responsibility for their own needs.  No one does their laundry.  A washing machine is made available.  No one repairs their clothes...that’s the inmate’s responsibility.  There is no janitorial service; keeping the “house and grounds” clean is their job.  A grocery truck comes into the prison on a regular basis, making it possible for them to purchase their own food with money they have earned while working in prison.  Wages for that work are pegged to what they might earn on the outside.  They have a small refrigerator in their rooms for produce.  There is a general kitchen where inmates can make their own meals.  The kitchen is well equipped with the necessary tools with which to prepare their food.

They are encouraged to get a job, and the prison has a variety of things they can do.  I visited a very large carpentry shop with very sophisticated equipment.  Inmates are encouraged either to learn how to use these tools or to share their knowledge with others.  On the day I visited, they were making furniture for "outside" customers.  They are paid for their labor, and they are encouraged to save at least 15% of their earnings for use after they are released.  In some instances, they can even get a job outside of the prison, but they must be back inside by the end of the working day.

In this way, life on the inside of an Open Prison is designed to mirror what they will experience  when they leave in order to reduce the sense of shock which is generated largely by the vast difference in milieu. In a Danish Open Prison, the  transition is relatively easy, thereby reducing the likelihood of recidivism.  By contrast, the American approach is designed to underscore the difference between life inside and outside.  An inmate is there to be punished; life should not be comfortable!  Hence, when they complete their sentences, inmates are released into an utterly alien environment.   The shock is likely to be enormous.  

In addition, the American approach encourages inmates to identify with other offenders rather than with those on the outside, a continuation of their “us v. them” perception of the world.  Those on the outside are generally seen as being  responsible for putting them inside.  The Danish system is based on the opposite assumption and that if this aspect of the process is continued, it will lead to continued alienation and a higher degree of recidivism.

The other core principle of the Open prison, according to Rentzmann, is he idea of "co-creation" as opposed to the traditional top-down decision making process.  This means that staff and inmates may be included in this process of deciding about internal operations – decisions about daily life within the prison.  

Why is this important?  

Essentially, we all want to be included.  The allure of gang membership is that one becomes a part of a community with a role to play in making basic decisions about that community.  There are, of course, limits to the sorts of things that might be subject to joint decision-making, but both inmates and staff come to feel that their input has been taken into account; that they matter. 

A key goal of this process is to minimize the distinctions between "them and us."  I remembered Bibi's comment about her interactions with inmates, reminding them that she was there to help; that "we are in this together."  This is especially critical to the process of reintegration after the completion of an inmate’s sentence.  There is a determined effort to reduce the barriers that divide inmates from the rest of society because it is this level of alienation from the rest of society that encourages the undesirable behavior in the first place.

So they get together and talk about ordinary stuff, like nutrition or wellness, the daily schedule, work conditions, etc. and in the process, develop a relationship or a system of communication based on an acquired sense of trust.  If they can talk about the ordinary in a routine fashion, perhaps they will be able to talk about more significant things if the need arises.  Conversely, if these conversations had never taken place, it is doubtful that such tools of communication would ever materialize.

William Rentzmann spent much of our time talking about the need for education as a key part of the incarceration experience.  Hence, much of the discussion between staff and inmates has focused on the educational needs of the inmates.  What sorts of courses make sense?  How do these courses relate to contemporary employability?  How should they be taught?  What sorts of study areas should be provided?

But if we include inmates in the decision-making process, is there a danger that they will forget who is in charge?  Does this amount to coddling those charged with having committed serious crimes?   

And ultimately, can a system developed to deal with Danish offenders apply to the California experience?

Stay tuned!  Blog #4 is on its way.


Cyndi Burt