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By Eugene S. Robinson, Editor-at-Large

One of the more fascinating philosophical cul de sacs has to do with Jesus Christ’s dictum regarding doing to him what we do to the least of us. Principally, in this instance, penal policy. So from Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, a prison where circled prison cells are watched by a central single tower, to Devil’s Island, the penal colony made famous in the film Papillon, prisons have been designed to punish as much as anything else.

But this Old Testament way of dealing with those who perpetrate crimes has given way to the idea of actually rehabilitating the career criminal. So from the failed deterrent form factor of the penitentiary to the idea of a reformatory where we cure crime, how we incarcerate has started to turn. At least a little.

Globally, it seems an experiment is afoot and with it the idea that prisons shouldnt be hellholes since you only get one kind of person out of a hellhole and that’s not the person you should expect to return to polite society.

“Research shows that detention in traditional prisons [is] harmful and will in many cases cause many convicts return to society as a worse threat to the community than when they were imprisoned,” says Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, the retired governor of Norway’s Bastøy Prison. “Generally speaking, it can be said that society confuses people’s need for revenge … with ways that may contribute to a reduction of crime!”

So, where are the world’s best prisons if you have to go to prison? Well, here are a few!

Bastøy Prison (Norway): “We focus on respect in a different way … [and] believe that if I, regardless of me being a prison director or not, am to expect to be treated with respect from a prisoner, it is required that the prisoner actually knows what respect is,” Nilsen says. So Bastøy inmates, and always low-risk ones, have their own places to live and a variety of activities that make it much more like a country club than a prison. The catch? If you try to escape and are caught? You go to a more traditional prison. Does it work? The recidivism rate for inmates from U.S. state pens recently stood at 83 percent, according to Prison Legal News. At Bastøy, when Nilsen was director there? 16 percent. “Prisons are full of people who have a very poor self-image and very low self-respect. Bastoy works toward helping the inmate regain self-respect and better their relationship with themselves. From this comes change.”

Otago Corrections Facility (New Zealand): Not to be outdone, the so-called Milton Hilton, (located near a town named Milton) is a minimum-security prison that was designed to make prison a little less miserable, and it presently offers rugby courts and underfloor heating to keep your feet toasty during the winter months. That’s the good news. The bad news? As of last year, overcrowding has led to increased use of force against inmates and a resultant loss of luxury. But at least the intention was good.

Suomenlinna Prison (Finland): Initially, Suomenlinna had the distinction of being an “open prison.” Which is to say that though it was on an island, it has no cells or locked doors and inmates live in shared housing with private rooms. They also do construction jobs on the island. Eventually, however, gates had to introduced. It wasn’t to keep inmates in, but to keep tourists out. It’s located about 20 miles outside Helsinki, and is it beautiful? Well, enough so that people are trying to break in.

Sala Prison (Morocco): If you’re a VIP in Morocco and you screw up, why should you be punished like a commoner would? It’s a line of thinking not so different from what you find in America (Bernie Madoff runs absolutely no daily risk of getting shivved). Sala has large single rooms for inmates, cell phones, newspaper-to-cell delivery and so-called “Abu Dhabi” suites that are often described as “luxurious” and have kicked up a certain level of discontent since not everyone in prison in Morocco gets treated as nicely. And as nice as it is, the recidivism rate as measured a few years ago by the Mohammed VI Foundation for the Reintegration of Detainees, because or despite the luxury, fell from 3 percent to 2.3 percent. So if you must go to prison in North Africa? It must be Sala.

Butner Federal Correctional Institution (USA): And speaking of Bernie Madoff, he’s HERE! If you weren’t told it was a prison, the “crown jewel” of prisons, you might not know. This is where financial finagler Madoff spends his days. Formerly a pretty swank way to wile away your hard time — pictures of North Carolina’s Butner, outside of Raleigh, look like a retirement village — there’s been a switch up, courtesy of our annus horribilis with COVID. Butner was hit hard by it. ADX Florence hard? Colorado’s ADX Florence is widely held as one of the worst prisons in America, so no, not that hard. But hard enough that visits have been suspended and people have been dying. Still and all, better to die watching a big screen HDTV than shivved in the shower.



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