How Norwegian prisons prepare inmates to become better neighbors

Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington state officials tour Romerike Prison near Oslo, Norway, to learn from the nation’s unique approach to rehabilitative corrections.
Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington state officials tour Romerike Prison near Oslo, Norway, to learn from the nation’s unique approach to rehabilitative corrections.

Much about Norway’s famous prisons stands in contrast to American impressions of incarceration. The opinion of the Norwegian parliament is that loss of liberty is punishment enough. In their view, the goal of prisons must be to prepare incarcerated people to function in society upon release. The Norwegian Correctional Service believes that people go to court to get punished, and they go to prison to become better neighbors.

Norway’s official policy is to produce a person who, “when the sentence has been served, is drug-free or in control of his drug use, has a suitable place to live, can read, write and do math, has a chance on the job market, can relate to family and friends and society at large, are able to seek help for problems that may arise after release and can live independently.”

The method is working. Norways rate of recidivism — the number of people who return to prison after release — is 20%. In contrast, two-thirds of the nearly 7.6 million released from American jails and prisons each year will be rearrested.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) officials visited Romerike Prison near Oslo this week as part of a trade mission to the Nordic countries. The delegation experienced the nation’s unique approach to corrections and looked for ideas to bring back home.

Gov. Jay Inslee and officials from the Washington State Department of Corrections visited Romerike Prison near Oslo in September. Norwegian prisons seek to “resocialize” incarcerated people to prepare them for society upon release — Inslee spoke with American and Norwegian corrections officers for their perspectives.

Importing Ideas of Justice

Exchanges began in 2020 when state DOC staff previously joined a study trip to Norway facilitated by AMEND at the University of California San Francisco (AMEND). The visit was timely. DOC had recently committed to a new mission to improve public safety by positively changing the lives of inmates. Norway is lauded for policy rooted in human dignity and “resocialization” of inmates.

Norway’s reinvention of its correctional model began in the 1990s. Troubled by recidivism and prison violence, the Norwegian parliament commissioned research that produced an official state report. The report enshrined values for a new era prioritizing the self-efficacy of inmates upon release. Ten years later, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security produced a second state report, which built upon the first by detailing methods to rehabilitate inmates. Fostering “normalcy” would be the priority. Inmates would prepare to rejoin society through job training, spiritual services, and socialization.

Nowadays, Norwegian correctional policy centers on improving the lives of staff through humane treatment of incarcerated people. AMEND partnered with the Norwegian Correctional Service to import these principles into U.S. prisons.

Chris Poulos, DOC’s director of person-centered services, left the 2020 visit impressed. “The impact is profound, not only on staff but their families, the incarcerated, and the volunteers,” said Poulos. “It has a ripple effect on the community.”

“It was amazing,” said Melissa Andrewjeski, Coyote Ridge Corrections Center superintendent. “They definitely have created a model over the last 30 years that people should look at.”

“Pretty much everyone who went had their perspectives changed — they had a light bulb moment,” said Courtney Grubb, program manager at the state Department of Corrections. “Being able to see it in person and bring it back to implement here was just what I needed.”

DOC leaders returned inspired from the visit and began training staff on the Norwegian principles of dynamic security, normalization, and progression.

A delegation of Washington State Department of Corrections Officials visited Norway in 2020 to learn about their corrections practices.
A delegation from Washington spent a week in Norway touring prisons (including Bastøy Prison, pictured) to bring policy ideas back to Washington. Back row from left: DOC Training and Development Unit Administrator Jason Aldana, Governor’s Office Senior Policy Advisor Sonja Hallum, DOC Human Resources Director Todd Dowler, Director of Person-Centered Services Chris Poulos, Deputy Secretary Sean Murphy and state Rep. Roger Goodman. Front row from left: Assistant Attorney General Barbara Serrano, Coyote Ridge Superintendent Melissa Andrewjeski, Project Manager Courtney Grubb and state Sen. Claire Wilson. Photo courtesy of the state Department of Corrections.

Open to Input

The mission of the state Department of Corrections is to improve public safety by positively changing lives. The agency honors that mission by engaging consultants to audit practices and suggest improvements. Of late, DOC has partnered with AMEND and the Vera Institute of Justice (VERA). VERA has helped shape policy to limit inmate isolation. AMEND has suggested “decarceration” strategies to reduce prison populations and reintegrate formerly incarcerated individuals. AMEND has also facilitated these Norwegian exchanges.

One issue confronting DOC is the wellness of corrections staff.

Correctional staff disproportionately experience high rates of chronic disease and mental health problems due to environmental stress. Studies show that the average life expectancy of an American corrections officer is just 59 years old (75 is the national average).

A study published in Frontiers, one in a series on wellbeing in forensic psychiatry and prisons, found that correctional officers “self-reported statistically significantly more exposure to potentially psychologically traumatic events” and higher incidence of mental disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

Collaboration between DOC and AMEND has led to new efforts to reform training. The new training is gaining favor among staff.

Norwegian corrections officers complete a rigorous process that includes training on emotional survival and peer support before working within prisons. They serve only a few inmates at a time, simultaneously acting as a guard and social worker. They also complete a two-year, full-time curriculum encompassing ethics, psychology, communication, law, and human rights. Self-defense is taught, but secondarily.

“I have worked in corrections for over 25 years. Since day one, it has been an us against them mentality,” said one lieutenant at a DOC men’s facility. “Getting staff to understand times have changed and our tactics and training does not seem to be working. But this course shows that building relationships (currently taboo) with residents may actually increase the effectiveness of security. I hope everyone will be able to see this.”

“This is a great opportunity to learn and create a better foundation for the work we continue to do,” said one supervisor at a DOC reentry center. “Our statistics on recidivism are dismal and what we’ve done up to this point is not accomplishing what we want, which is to positively impact lives. Time for new ideas and energy.”

“Since participating in the AMEND program my family has noticed firsthand that I come home happier and not as drained, I am more upbeat and have a more positive attitude,” said an officer from a DOC men’s facility.

Bringing Back Solutions

Inslee’s trade mission will introduce him and state agency leaders to foreign solutions to familiar challenges. Crime, mental illness, and substance use disorder are not unique to the United States. There is much to be learned from novel approaches to solving problems.

In the case of Norway, its parliament responded to the issue of recidivism and violence in prisons scientifically. They commissioned intensive research and adopted ambitious recommendations. They built a new model of justice recognized for its embrace of human dignity. The proof is in the pudding — recidivism is now a fraction of the American rate.

Inslee signed an executive order in 2016 to better support the successful transition of people leaving prison. DOC has borrowed reintegration policies from foreign counterparts. As a state, Washington is committed to improved public safety through reduced recidivism. Prisons should help people become better neighbors by the time they leave. Once they leave, the hope is that they don’t return.

Better out than in,” goes an unofficial motto of the Norwegian Correctional Service. Experimenting with this approach here may positively transform lives — after all, that’s the DOC mission.

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Governor Jay Inslee

Governor Jay Inslee

Governor of Washington state. Writing about innovation, jobs, education, clean energy & my grandkids. Building a WA that works for everyone.