Burns Institute’s James Bell Explores Norwegian Model of Maximum Security, Proportionality

Earlier this month, James Bell, Founder and President of the W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI), stepped into a large facility about an hour outside of Oslo, Norway. He encountered cheery orange couches in front of flat-screen televisions, flower murals on the wall, and tidy classrooms, plus numerous trade-specific training areas — a woodshop, an auto shop, a chef’s kitchen. The individual bedrooms, each with a wooden bed frame, desk and armoire, gave the impression of a newly furnished dorm room. But this wasn’t a university; Bell had walked into Halden Fengsel, one of Norway’s maximum security prisons.

Having advocated for more humane ways of addressing dangerous law violators for over thirty years, Bell wanted to observe the Scandinavian approach to incarceration, which has often been cited as a model for reform in the United States. So Bell contacted local Norwegian officials, who provided access to two facilities.

“After entering the prison gates, the optics are a bit startling,” Bell admitted. “However, it should be noted that the optics are a reflection of a dramatically different worldview regarding the Norwegian response to law violations.” Bell explained that Norway employs an alternative vision on the basic function of incarceration, “which is almost impossible for us to comprehend — and for good reason,” he continued. “Our historical contexts are quite different and one cannot just cookie cutter one society to another. It is hard to compare a diverse country with close to 400 million people and 300 million guns with another that is mostly homogeneous and has a population of juat under 6 million.”

Despite the differences, he uncovered some important lessons from the Norwegian approach to law violations. “The first that comes to mind is our deep societal need for punishment and retribution. So much of our carceral policies and practices are steeped in the supposedly cleansing effects of punishment,” he said. “We lead the world in mass incarceration because we not only want to separate law violators from society but we also want them to suffer. And suffering means that we treat them as less than human.”

The Norwegian model rejects this premise of punishment and suffering as a response to law violations, leaning on evidence that shows that such an approach does not work. Mass incarceration in the US, for example, has a 60% failure rate, Bell points out, “yet we continue to pour obscene amounts of money, material, and human capital into this failing enterprise.”

In contrast, Norwegian leaders approached their justice system by first determining the standards that, as a civil society, they wish to uphold for those that break their laws and hurt other people. “In other words,” Bell explained, “they have posited, how will Norwegian culture treat the ‘other’?” The Norwegian experiment demonstrated to Bell that their threshold for  treatment of the “other” is not to take away their humanity or dignity. “They believe that people should maintain their dignity; that they’re human beings, and even though they are the ‘other’, the society is not going to go below a certain standard of treatment for them,” he added. “Thus, the prison facilities look and feel so differently from ours.”

Turning away from over-reliance on punishment and suffering, the Norwegian prisons serve to restrict residents’ movements while aiming, ultimately, to integrate residents back into civil society. This is buttressed by the fact that Norwegian prisoners don’t surrender their rights as citizens at the door; they can still vote, and, in some instances, work and maintain housing.  

The unusually progressive approach in the design of the physical structures of the justice system are reflected in courtroom procedures as well: proportionality is an important principle in the administration of justice. This means that criminal penalties take into account the accused and victim’s personal circumstances, plus the services available, with the ultimate goal to reintegrate the individual into society.  This model bucks the punitive approach in the U.S. that relies on bright lines and formulas in sentencing decisions.  “Indeed, Americans rarely notice when ridiculous sentences of three life terms plus 80 years are meted out, or the absurdity of someone sentenced to 840 years,” Bell pointed out.

However, the northern European progressive approach is now facing new challenges. As climate change, extreme poverty, internal conflicts, and the vestiges of colonialism force massive waves of migrants northward, Europe is grappling with how to respond to rapidly growing racial and ethnic minorities in all parts of their societies, including in the administration of justice.  Bell notes that some countries are just beginning to collect data on the race and ethnicity of those incarcerated; others eschew collecting such data, owing to the legacy of the racial data collected by the Nazis during the Third Reich.

However, justice system experts in England, Wales, Ireland, and other parts of Europe are interested in the BI approach to engage race and ethnicity within the justice system. “We can be of assistance as they begin a journey that we have been on for decades,” Bell said. While many of these countries do not have racism coded institutionally into their justice system, they are at a critical point as they develop new laws, which could be aimed at providing safety of all people, or at establishing  social control of the ‘other’, he noted. The possible use of the justice system as an instrument of social control targeting race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation is a question with which European countries are grappling. “In this regard, there is much the BI and others working for transformative justice have to share with our European colleagues,” Bell concluded.

In that vein, the BI has established relations for continued collaboration with other countries, beginning with an introductory seminar for BI staff by Maartje van der Woude from the Netherlands on these issues at the BI offices in Oakland, California, in October. “It is incumbent on us all to envision a new way of doing justice,” said Bell, “and take learnings from those who would seek to increase humanity rather than diminish it.”