Think small

On the 29th of July, the Norwegian Minister of Justice officially opened the new Agder fengsel, Avdeling Mandal. When Avdeling Froland opens in the end of August, Agder fengsel will become Norway’s largest high-security prison with an overall capacity of 300 new places. 200 in Froland and 100 in Mandal. Both consist of brand new buildings, with a total cost of approximately 1.2 billion NOK.

In the media, the prison has been referred to as the new ‘superprison’[1] and ‘a model for the future of the correctional services[2]’. The Minister of Justice has argued that ‘this has to become Norway’s best prison’, while the prison governor himself has gone as far as claiming that Agder has the potential to become the best prison in the world[3].

The core of Agder is punishment combined with rehabilitation. This means that the inmates will buy and cook their own food, clean, run the shop and enrol for education. They will also have access to a digital self-service system. Through this, the inmates can stay in contact with friends and family, communicate with service providers and staff, and keep an overview of their schedule, finances and belongings. The intention is to start the teaching of everyday skills earlier in the sentence, and to prepare inmates for release into a digital society.

Agder does indeed represent a modernisation of the correctional services, both building-wise and practice-wise. Many of today’s prisons are old and were originally built in a different time for a different purpose. Yet, there are several implications to this new and technologically innovative prison, as well as to portraying this as a ‘model for the future’. One of them is how the operation of this prison will look like in practice.

Over the last few years, the Norwegian correctional service has come to face annual budget cuts and a drive to maximise efficiencies. The new political order has become to build larger. We are closing down the smaller prisons and invest in the building, renovation and expansion of larger units. This priority combined with massive cuts has left little money for the operational running, which means low staffing, more isolation, and less time for activities and rehabilitation. As a consequence, ‘the model for the future’ might just turn into large buildings for temporary containment of inmates, rather than institutions for change and personal development.

In contemporary society, rehabilitation has come to be seen as the responsibility of the individual. This also seems to be the rationale behind the approach to rehabilitation in Agder fengsel. Although all people need to be motivated in order to drastically change their lives, there is good reason to believe that positive change is affected by the environment. Research on Norwegian prison size has found important results in this regard[4]:

  • While generally felt respected and cared for in small units, inmates in larger institutions more often felt a lack of individual care and concern.
  • The visibility of management in small units allows more instant decision-making, reducing the tension, stress and frustration linked to waiting for answers.
  • Small units are more often located closer to the inmates’ homes, making it easier for them to stay connected to their community and arrange visits from family and friends.

These factors are key in the process of rehabilitation and reintegration, as they allow inmates to focus on themselves rather than external disturbances.

An important argument which emerges out of these findings is the impact of staff/inmate relationships on the process of rehabilitation and reintegration. In large units, one may assume that these relationships get affected by the system, rules, regulations, and unpredictability. Control may consequently become more formalised. Static security could play a greater role than dynamic security, as inmates and staff tend to not get to know each other on a personal level to the same extent as what is possible in smaller units. Formalised relationships may prevent the staff from picking up on abnormal behaviour or problems faced by the inmate before it is too late. In smaller units, it appears to be the other way around[5]. Our humanistic principles seem easier to put into practice in small prisons for this exact reason. As the staff and inmates develop a personal relationship, inmates can more easily be met with respect, trust, dignity and understanding.

We know that inmates struggle with a wide variety of problems upon entry[6]. Some need someone to talk to, while others are at rock bottom. There are reasons to believe that rehabilitation through responsibility for daily tasks fit the needs and functional level of some, but far from everyone. Inmates constitute a complex group, and their wide spectrum of issues, needs, backgrounds, history and functional level has to be taken into account for rehabilitation to be effective. One may assume that this becomes difficult to manage in large units, where you only become one of many.

These factors imply that it is easier to facilitate good rehabilitation and reintegration in smaller and differentiated units. It allows for closer relationships and closer follow-up. It allows informal interaction, flexibility and discretion. It allows you to work on the problems you have, not the ones you should have. It allows you to be a person, and not an ‘inmate’ or an ‘officer’.

Yet, we build larger. Crime and punishment cost society an enormous amount of money. In a time where money is tight, it is easy to resort to short-term solutions. However, to invest in good correctional service and ‘punishment that works’ is good economics. A report prepared by Vista Analyse in 2014 concluded that it would save the society between 15 and 21 million NOK over 20 years if only one person returned to society as a law-abiding and tax-paying citizen[7]. And these are only the financial costs. A successful return will also ease pain and suffering on all parts involved in a criminal act. Last, but not least – for every person who returns to a law-abiding life, we will have at least one less victim. That in itself should be a good enough reason to invest in good correctional service, and differentiated imprisonment in detention houses.

[4] Johnsen, B., Granheim, P.K. and Helgesen, J. (2011). Exceptional prison conditions and the quality of prison life: Prison size and prison culture in Norwegian closed prisons. European Journal of Criminology. 8(6), 515-529; Johnsen, B, Granheim, PK (2011) Prison size and the quality of life in Norwegian closed prisons in late modernity. In: Ugelvik, T, Dullum, J (eds) Penal Exceptionalism? Nordic Prison Policy and Practice. London: Routledge.
[5] ibid.