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Criminology Student Visits Max Security Prison in Norway

September 26, 2017

Emma Nolan ’18 performed 14 interviews with Norwegian prison officials in research on comparative punishment practices.

Drexel Criminology and Justice Studies Student Emma Nolan in Norway
Emma Nolan exploring the fjords of Bergen, a city on the west coast of Norway.

What do little girls dream of? Four-year-old Emma Nolan ’18 dreamed of becoming a sharp-shooter in the CIA.

“My mom had no idea where I got that from,” she laughs, now a senior criminology and justice studies major at Drexel University.

Not much seems to have changed for Nolan, who, unlike many students, never doubted her choice of major. Her career ambitions have shifted, however, from a future in law enforcement and government agency work to one in research, after her experience in an intensive course abroad.

Led by Jordan Hyatt, JD, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Justice Studies, the brand-new course brought five students on a comparative exploration of the American and Scandinavian criminal justice systems. Six days in Oslo, Norway, focused on prison reform with a capstone tour of maximum-security prison Halden Fengsel, were followed by five days in Stockholm and Uppsala, Sweden, focused on juvenile justice.

A three-year student of Hyatt’s, Nolan epitomizes what is possible when you combine initiative with Drexel opportunity.

The Mystic, Connecticut, native, who plans to graduate a semester early, approached Hyatt shortly after the intensive course about returning to Oslo for independent research at Halden. She spent the next two months developing a proposal for a project that would involve interviewing over a dozen prison officials. Last spring, she boarded a plane to Oslo with the goal of uncovering why the criminal justice world has taken notice of Norway’s second largest prison.

Treat them as your neighbor

Dubbed “the World’s Most Humane Prison” by TIME magazine, Halden is internationally recognized for its innovative reform techniques. Touring the campus-like facilities during the initial trip, Nolan was struck by how happy everyone seemed, inmates included. Beyond the flat screen TVs, abundant fresh produce and award-winning interior design, there is notable courteousness and mutual respect between inmates and staff. The institution’s guiding principle is to treat inmates as you would your neighbors, because one day, they just might be. Both life sentences and the death penalty are outlawed in Norway.

Nolan’s plans to interview officials, from security guards up to the warden, had to account for these and other cultural differences. While English is the primary spoken language at Halden (a result of the culturally diverse inmate population), interviewees sometimes struggled to find the right words. Reading body language was also a challenge, as Nolan tried to assess whether a question made the interviewee uncomfortable. Despite the challenges, Nolan says the officials were surprisingly frank.

“They rolled out the red carpet,” she says, noting the warden’s desire to bring the public into the institution.

With 14 interviews to conduct over two days, she credited the preparation she received in the intense mock-interview process for Drexel’s Co-op program. As her confidence grew, she found that she was able to go off script and adapt her questions to the specific roles of her interviewees. At each level, employees spoke of recurring principles underlying the policies, with the “neighborly” attitude at their core.

“Emma was able to conduct international field research in a very challenging environment," says Hyatt, who worked with Nolan to design the research protocol and accompanied her return to Norway. "She had to remain adaptable and engaged in many interviews, and showed a clear understanding of both the literature and the procedure for collecting qualitative data. Her work exceeded our expectations.”

Different contexts, lasting ideas

The differences between the correctional systems in the U.S. and Norway are stark. In size alone, the U.S. incarcerates at almost nine times the rate Norway does, according to the World Prison Brief. Conversely, Halden spends about three times as much annually as the average U.S. prison, in part to maintain its state-of-the-art facilities and low inmate to staff ratio. While Nolan and Hyatt say that direct transplantation of Halden’s policies into our own system wouldn’t work, they do believe we can take elements of its approach.

“Emma’s work could inform conversations about how inmates and staff could interact in other, less innovative facilities,” Hyatt says. “Her project provides new insight into the operation of a one-of-a-kind prison and underscores the basic philosophical differences between the Norwegian and American correctional systems.”

Now back at Drexel, Nolan is on co-op at OPS Security Group and continuing her independent study in the fall. She has a hefty 20-credit course load, and a mountain of transcription work ahead of her. But the payoff in research experience is worth the effort, as she continues to see the ripples of her work here at home.

Nolan and Hyatt, along with Synøve Andersen, PhD, from Statistics Norway, will present their research at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, which will take place in Philadelphia in November.

They also played an integral role in bringing Halden Warden Are Høidal to the meeting, a boon to the Philadelphia community in its potential for further exchange of ideas.

A rising globetrotter

Following her research, Nolan boarded a nine-hour night train to the west coast of Norway, her first time traveling alone. It wasn’t easy for her to leave the friendly Scandinavian country, but she left with an enhanced global perspective.

“It made me grow up a lot,” she says. “It’s very eye-opening being back. You can learn anything about another country, but once you’re submerged in it, you start to think of all the differences. It makes you a little more critical [of your own culture].”

To other students who are interested in doing international research, Nolan recommends not being afraid to ask for support and starting the conversation early. She worked closely with the CJS department and was granted partial funding for the trip.

Beyond her shifted career aspirations, it’s clear the experience has altered Nolan in another way: she’s caught the travel bug. She plans to go abroad again before graduating, adding to her experiences in Oslo and in Argentina, where she took another intensive course on juvenile justice as a sophomore.

“If you have the option to travel, just go,” she says. “But once you travel, you’re not going to want to stop.”

Meet the Warden: Drexel students are invited to join the CJS department at the State Correctional Institution in Chester on October 2 for an informative panel discussion with Are Høidal, Warden of Halden Prison, and John Wetzel, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. The event will focus on the different approaches to punishment in Norway and the U.S., and will include a screening of the documentary "Breaking the Cycle: From Halden to Attica" (2017). Visit the events calendar for more information and to complete the required pre-registration.