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A Life-Changing Visit to a Revolutionary Scandinavian Prison

August 15, 2017

The students outside of Norway's Halden prison.

Abbey Meyer is getting used to the confused looks she gets when she tells people about the week-and-a-half she spent in Scandinavia last winter. Everything seems fine when she describes the Christmas-style feast she and her friends shared in Sweden or the art she found at every turn while riding the Norwegian subway, but then she mentions the real reason she made the trip and the reactions change.

“When I tell everyone I traveled across the world to visit a prison and go inside, they’re always like, ‘Wait, what?’” said Meyer, a junior studying criminology and justice in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Meyer was one of five students who went to Scandinavia last December on the maiden voyage of an intensive course abroad designed to examine the differences between the American criminal justice system — focused on deterrence and punishment — and its counterparts in Norway and Sweden, which prioritize restoration and rehabilitation. She came back with a newfound appreciation for the diverse approaches to criminal justice around the world, and she’s been telling people about the experience ever since.

“It opened up my eyes to a whole different world outside of where we live, and that our system is not the main system,” said Meyer. “Not to be harsh, but it’s not working. More of us need to go out and experience what other countries are doing with their offenders and see what we can bring from them here. Even though we’re a thousand times bigger, we can take little things from them and make them our own.”

Jordan Hyatt, PhD, JD, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Justice Studies, designed the program with that idea in mind. The social democratic societies in Scandinavia contribute to justice systems with challenges far different than those in America, where the government plays a much smaller role in ensuring the welfare of its citizens. But given the stark realities — 2.3 million Americans are in prison and the per capita numbers are significantly worse than any other country — there are surely lessons to be learned.

“The goal is not to transplant their system here,” said Hyatt. “It’s neither possible nor particularly informative. It’s better to look at the way they do things and why, in terms of rehabilitation and re-entry, and try to import parts of that into the United States.”

Hyatt, now in his third year teaching at Drexel, taught in Sweden when he was younger and has done research in Scandinavia. He saw the intensive course as a way to ground the ideas he covers in his comparative justice class, using site visits and cultural lessons to help students understand both the methods of justice and their underlying factors.

Central to the experience were days spent at Halden Prison in Norway, near the southern border with Sweden, and Bärby, a juvenile justice facility just north of Stockholm. For Emma Nolan, a criminology major, Halden was “the star of the entire trip.”

“It was absolutely mind-blowing,” she said. “When we were walking around we felt like we were walking around a college campus.”

Because the Norwegian justice system aims to prepare individuals for life after prison — there is no capital punishment and the maximum sentence is 21 years — the facility at Halden is itself a stark contrast to an American prison, Meyer said. There may be a concrete wall rimmed with barbed wire, but it’s shrouded by “beautiful” trees, she said. The prison complex reminded her of farmland. The prisoners have tight schedules, including work and classes to develop skills they can use upon their release, but they spend much of their time roaming the grounds and talking with correctional officers who are working to develop a personal connection.

Before the trip, Hyatt suggested his students avoid reading up on the prison, so they could walk in with fresh eyes and be fully absorbed.

“It makes the abstract very concrete,” Hyatt said of the visit. “It’s one thing to talk about a maximum security prison that focuses on rehabilitation, but it’s another thing to walk through the institution and see how inmates are treated.”

Meyer was stunned by a five-course meal prepared by prisoners working in Halden’s restaurant — an elevated assemblage of dishes cooked by inmates showcasing the skills they learned inside. She came home from Halden with a cookbook that sits perched in her kitchen as a memento.

The second edition of the course, set for this December, has space to expand to 12 students, and Hyatt is hoping to reach beyond criminology to draw from disciplines such as engineering and public health — “people who look at systems of incarceration and punishment in a very different way,” he said.

For Nolan, the time spent in Scandinavia was “completely life-changing.” She returned to Norway in the spring to better understand what makes Halden so different from American prisons. While there, she interviewed Halden’s warden, who will be visiting Drexel on Oct. 2 for a panel discussion about those differences with Hyatt and Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel. Nolan also spoke with correctional officers, teachers, members of the social welfare department, workers in the drug rehabilitation program and individuals who help transition prisoners upon release. She had been targeting a career in law enforcement or government work, but the experience opened her eyes to the research aspect of criminology. Between her two trips to Scandinavia, she already has a lead on an area of study.

“The U.S. system is a revolving door where people leave and re-offend and have to re-enter the criminal justice system,” said Nolan. “So much money is being spent on housing them when it could be spent on fixing them.”