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James writes: "The head of Sweden's prison and probation service, Nils Oberg, announced in November that four Swedish prisons are to be closed due to an 'out of the ordinary' decline in prisoner numbers."

A cell in Kumla prison, Sweden's most secure institution. (photo: Henrik Witt/Press Association Images)
A cell in Kumla prison, Sweden's most secure institution. (photo: Henrik Witt/Press Association Images)


Why Is Sweden Closing Its Prisons?

By Erwin James, Guardian UK

02 December 13

 

Sweden's prison population has dropped so dramatically that the country plans to close four of its prisons. What lessons can the UK learn?

wedish prisons have long had a reputation around the world as being liberal and progressive. So much so that in 2005 even Saddam Hussein requested to be transferred to a Swedish prison to await his trial - a request that was rejected by the Swedish authorities. But are the country's prisons a soft option?

The head of Sweden's prison and probation service, Nils Oberg, announced in November that four Swedish prisons are to be closed due to an "out of the ordinary" decline in prisoner numbers.

Although there has been no fall in crime rates, between 2011 and 2012 there was a 6% drop in Sweden's prisoner population, now a little over 4,500. A similar decrease is expected this year and the next. Oberg admitted to being puzzled by the unexpected dip, but expressed optimism that the reason was to do with how his prisons are run. "We certainly hope that the efforts we invest in rehabilitation and preventing relapse of crime has had an impact," he said.

"The modern prison service in Sweden is very different from when I joined as a young prison officer in 1978," says Kenneth Gustafsson, governor of Kumla prison, Sweden's most secure jail, situated 130 miles west of Stockholm. However, he doesn't think the system has gone soft."When I joined, the focus was very much on humanity in prisons. Prisoners were treated well, maybe too well, some might say. But after a number of high-profile escapes in 2004 we had to rebalance and place more emphasis on security." One of those escapes was made by a man called Tony Olsen, serving life imprisonment for shooting dead two police officers, from a maximum security prison in collusion with a prison guard. The then director general of the prison service was forced to step down.

Despite the hardening of attitudes toward prison security following the escape scandals, the Swedes still managed to maintain a broadly humane approach to sentencing, even of the most serious offenders: jail terms rarely exceed 10 years; those who receive life imprisonment can still apply to the courts after a decade to have the sentence commuted to a fixed term, usually in the region of 18 to 25 years. Sweden was the first country in Europe to introduce the electronic tagging of convicted criminals and continues to strive to minimise short-term prison sentences wherever possible by using community-based measures - proven to be more effective at reducing reoffending.

According to the UK Ministry of Justice, the highest rate of reoffending within a year of release among adults is recorded by those serving 12 months or less. The overall reoffending rate in Sweden stands at between 30 and 40% over three years - around half that in the UK. One likely factor that has kept reoffending down and the rate of incarceration in Sweden below 70 per 100,000 head of population - less than half the figure for England and Wales - is that the age of criminal responsibility is set at 15. In the UK, children aged 10-17 and young people under the age of 21 record the highest reoffending rates: almost three quarters and two thirds respectively - a good proportion of whom go on to populate adult jails. Unlike the UK, where a life sentence can be handed down to a 10-year-old, in Sweden no young person under the age of 21 can be sentenced to life and every effort is made to ensure that as few juvenile offenders as possible end up in prison.

One strong reason for the drop in prison numbers might be the amount of post-prison support available in Sweden. A confident probation service - a government agency - is tasked not only with supervising those on probation but is also guaranteed to provide treatment programmes for offenders with drug/alcohol or violence issues. The service is assisted by around 4,500 lay supervisors - members of the public who volunteer to befriend and support offenders under supervision. There is no equivalent in the UK.

When I tell Gustafsson that Chris Grayling, Britain's justice secretary, recently announced that inmates in England and Wales are to be made to wear prison uniforms and have limited access to television, he laughs. "[Politicians] keep their fingers away from us. We are allowed to get on with our jobs without any interference."

He talks about broader goals and objectives for the Swedish justice department: "This year and next year the priority of our work will be with young offenders and men with convictions of violent behaviour. For many years we have been running programmes to help those addicted to drugs. Now we are also developing programmes to address behaviours such as aggression and violence. These are the important things for our society when these people are released."

I spoke to a former prisoner who now runs a social enterprise called X-Cons Sweden. Peter Soderlund served almost three years of a four-year sentence for drug and weapons offences before he was released in 1998. He was helped by a newly formed organisation run by former prisoners called Kris, (Criminals Return In Society). For some years he worked to help build Kris until 2008 when, following organisational disputes and conflicts, he left.

"The big difference between Kris and us is that we are happy to allow people who are still taking addiction medications to join us," he says. Both organisations work with the same goal: helping prisoners successfully reintegrate into society after they have been released. And what is life like for the prisoner in Sweden? "When I was inside I was lucky. In Osteraker prison where I served my sentence the governor was enlightened. We were treated well. But I knew that not all Swedish prisons were like that. I met so many people in there who needed help - after I received help from Kris I knew I wanted to help others. With X-Cons, we meet them at the gate and support them into accommodation and offer a network of support."

Could it be, though, that the Swedish public is losing its appetite for genuine rehabilitation for prisoners? "In Sweden we believe very much in the concept of rehabilitation, without being naive of course," says Gustafsson. "There are some people who will not or cannot change. But in my experience the majority of prisoners want to change and we must do what we can to help to facilitate that. It is not always possible to achieve this in one prison sentence.

"Also it is not just prison that can rehabilitate - it is often a combined process involving probation and greater society. We can give education and training, but when they leave prison these people need housing and jobs."


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+26 # Activista 2013-12-02 21:10
List of countries by incarceration rate - Wikipedia, the free ...
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_incarceration_rate‎
Rank, Country Prisoners per 100,000 .... Prison population per capita.
Sweden 67/100,0 00
United States 716/100,000
Sick USA is NUMERO UNO ... prison-industri al empire of the World ...
 
 
+10 # Activista 2013-12-02 21:33
Story from the Everett PRIVATE prison -
www.heraldnet.com/article/20130922/NEWS01/709229935
was there jailed for 22 hours on October 1st. Memory of a kid/teenager with hypothermia, clicking teeth in a cold cell - torture? When UN will visit US prisons?
 
 
+2 # pmelton 2013-12-03 11:49
[quote name="Activista "]Story from the Everett PRIVATE prison -
www.heraldnet.com/article/20130922/NEWS01/709229935
quote]
The Snohomish County Jail is not private. It's a jail, not a prison. My son spent a night there for unpaid parking tickets. Private prisons are a scourge, but this isn't one.
 
 
+9 # Granny Weatherwax 2013-12-03 12:31
The US:
5% of the world population
25% of the world prisoners.

Land of the what?
 
 
+7 # Milarepa 2013-12-03 02:25
I've been living in Sweden for over thirty years. There's a lot that isn't being told in this story, and I can't tell it in this limited space. Suffice it to say that, actually, the situation is grim. People are spending months, sometimes years, in solitary before they go to trial. Many commit suicide or confess to crimes they didn't do just to get some relief. The prosecutors have basically unlimited power. It's basically an 18th century system. Also, new prisons are being built. Take this article as a PR piece. Take it with a HUGE grain of salt.
 
 
+8 # Glen 2013-12-03 06:14
Thank you for inserting your comments. I wish more people from around the world would contribute by offering the flip side of reports.
 
 
0 # MendoChuck 2013-12-03 12:48
Another reason why RSN is just another place where PR releases are just re-printed.

If you want REAL NEWS you must research it yourself.
No one will do it for you. Those days died with Walter Cronkite, or sometime during that period in our history. I am not really sure about that date either.

As stated below, "the flip side" or any news is what we all seek and opinion pieces do not serve that need. They may help by providing resources you, as an individual can seek out, but certainly not by clicking on ONE source and stopping there.

The biggest reason for RSN's problem with support is that there are so many opinions and resources available to any individual that really wants to find out "what really happened." Not what another individual think should have happened.

Sorry I just had to rant . . . .
 
 
+1 # Activista 2013-12-03 23:54
RSN brings up subject/topic - US prison system/horror. Yes with search engines one gets lot of "information" point of views. I use Wikipedia. It is open discussion so much needed in the age of propaganda.
 
 
+3 # Activista 2013-12-03 23:57
Please provide the references/arti cles - is this en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_incarceration_rate‎
Rank, Country Prisoners per 100,000 .... Prison population per capita.
Sweden 67/100,0 00
United States 716/100,000

USA ha 10x more per capita prisoners than Sweden, US has death penalty, Sweden NOT
"It's basically an 18th century system?"
 
 
+13 # hwmcadoo 2013-12-03 04:52
Why are there so many things other countries do so much better than America. Any thought would suggest when another does better it should be evaluated and changes made, but not in America.

The same problem lies in health insurance, education, poverty, standard of living etc. is it incredible stupidity or terminal corruption by politicians and the elite?

Either way, unless corrected will doom America very soon. It is not the same proud and admired country I grew up in. If I were young I would leave.
 
 
+3 # reiverpacific 2013-12-03 11:43
This is proof positive that the US prison system, especially in the South and the increasing private sector, results in "Universities of Crime".
Of course the absurd level of US gun ownership is obviously a contributory factor but then that thug-murderer Zimmerman is still walking around free and armed -probably a poster-boy for the NRA-, so the rot seeps right through into the cops and judiciary, making WHERE one is arrested and tried almost as significant as what the offense is.
Many of the worst criminals here are walking about free and prospering (beginning with the entire Dimwits/Cheyn-g ang crowd and continuing with the Wall Street - big bank Mafia; there are so many) but so many more are doing time for misdemeanors and small-time drug stuff. The Poorer, Blacker, American Indian or Latino the more likely you are to end up in a prison.
It's also significant that the UK (US lite) has the worst incarceration and recidivism rate in Europe, in concert with Big Bro' across the pond and their "Special relationship".
Inmates or those in remand awaiting trial in many of the Victorian slums they call prisons there, endure worse conditions and overcrowding than when they were built, at least in England.
But then, Sweden is one of them-thar "Stinkin' Socialist" nations that practice humanity-based government, putting it's taxpayers before it's corporations and military.
The very defintion of "Civilization" is demonstrated right here, along with universal health care!
 
 
+1 # Milarepa 2013-12-04 02:43
USA ha 10x more per capita prisoners than Sweden, US has death penalty, Sweden NOT
"It's basically an 18th century system?"
Activista, I've been watching the Swedish system for over 30 years, close up, also involved in it. I can't transmit this in-depth, hands-on knowledge to you. As for the death penalty, true, Sweden doesn't have it. But if a man commits suicide in solitary because he's been waiting to be tried for a year and there's no end in sight to this torture that's a sort of proxy death penalty, isn't it?
 
 
+1 # reiverpacific 2013-12-04 20:06
Quoting Milarepa:
USA ha 10x more per capita prisoners than Sweden, US has death penalty, Sweden NOT
"It's basically an 18th century system?"
Activista, I've been watching the Swedish system for over 30 years, close up, also involved in it. I can't transmit this in-depth, hands-on knowledge to you. As for the death penalty, true, Sweden doesn't have it. But if a man commits suicide in solitary because he's been waiting to be tried for a year and there's no end in sight to this torture that's a sort of proxy death penalty, isn't it?

Thanks for your up-front input.
I'd actually like to you elaborate more from your particular front if you can spare the time and space, as this affects all of us in one way or another wherever we choose to live.
I've seen quite a bit of the US -especially the South- "correctional" system up front and it's pretty awful, especially as the conditions of arrest and incarceration are so open to so many whims and interpretations.
What does one have to do -in terms and extent of breaking the law- to be put in solitary on remand awaiting trial in Sweden?
Is there no bail system?
I'd really like to know more.
 
 
+1 # Milarepa 2013-12-05 13:10
reiverpacific, answering your suggestion
No, there is no bail system in Sweden. Some people are allowed to be free pending trial, most not. Not all, but many people suspected of a crime are put in solitary. Meanwhile the prosecutor takes his/her time preparing a case. It usually takes months, sometime more than a year. People commit suicide in those circumstances. Courtrooms have no rules of evidence. Anybody can say anything they like. That goes back to trials under the village oak tree. Then it comes down to 'credibility' (trovärdighet). The judges are often lay assessors with no formal juridical training. This gives prosecutors basically unlimited power, including whose testimony is credible or not. This may give you an inkling, reiverpacific. Thanks for asking.
 
 
0 # reiverpacific 2013-12-05 13:59
Quoting Milarepa:
reiverpacific, answering your suggestion
No, there is no bail system in Sweden. Some people are allowed to be free pending trial, most not. Not all, but many people suspected of a crime are put in solitary. Meanwhile the prosecutor takes his/her time preparing a case. It usually takes months, sometime more than a year. People commit suicide in those circumstances. Courtrooms have no rules of evidence. Anybody can say anything they like. That goes back to trials under the village oak tree. Then it comes down to 'credibility' (trovärdighet). The judges are often lay assessors with no formal juridical training. This gives prosecutors basically unlimited power, including whose testimony is credible or not. This may give you an inkling, reiverpacific. Thanks for asking.

Pretty awful and most illuminating, especially the part about the judges. It rather tempers the commonly-held view of Scandinavia as the pinnacle of socially progressive governance.
It all comes down to "Handy-dandy; which the justice, which the thief?", dunnit?!
BTW, and I hope you aren't bored by the question, did you read the Steig Larson (sp?) trilogy and if so, how generally realistic are these book -which I enjoyed very much in the same "noir" way as Ian Rankin's novels, especially the John Rebus, Scotland's anti-hero police detective series?
There seems to be a very real active Nazi-revivalist movement over there constantly poking it's head up.
 

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