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Prison Administrators and Criminology Students Study Radical New Approach: Treat Prisoners Like Human Beings

by Christopher Zoukis

Attorney Donald Specter has spent his career working to bring change to the American carceral system. He began as a volunteer at the Prison Law Office – a Berkeley, California-based nonprofit law firm that litigates prison condition cases. The apex of his efforts may have been the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling in Brown v. Plata, which required California to reduce its prison population by upwards of 40,000 prisoners. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1].

But Specter came to realize that as a means of prison reform, litigation can only go so far. Thus, in 2013 he founded the U.S.-European Criminal Justice Innovation Program, a group that sponsors and funds tours of European prisons for U.S. prison officials, judges, legislators and other constituents of the carceral complex. According to the ABA Journal, Specter funds the trips with fees the Prison Law Office has been awarded in prison litigation cases, including his $2.2 million in fees from Brown v. Plata.

So far, groups from Idaho, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Alaska have toured prisons in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway. Participants in Specter’s program tend to come away from the tours with differing outlooks on incarceration and, ideally, a commitment to implementing change in their own corrections systems.

Following a 2014 tour of Halden Prison in Norway – where prisoners live in a sylvan setting with access to a kitchen equipped with glass and metal flatware, a living room with an Xbox and even a recording studio – the retired superintendent of New York’s Attica State Prison, James Conway, admitted, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

John Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Corrections and vice president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), toured German prisons with Specter in 2013. He said he was initially skeptical that “what happened over there would translate here [in the U.S.].” But he told Mother Jones that the trip changed him.

“To be so fricking optimistic that you think you can take some knuckle-dragging corrections guy like me over there and it’s going to change their perspective – you have to be a little hippy to think that,” Wetzel said, but added, “[i]t really screws you up, because it changes you.”

Leann Bertsch, head of North Dakota’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, had a similar reaction after touring Norwegian prisons. Bertsch, who also serves as president of the ASCA, was described by Wetzel as “ballsy” and not a “softie.” But her tour of the Halden facility, which Time has dubbed “the world’s most humane prison,” hit her hard.

“It was definitely one of those moments where you’re rethinking everything,” Bertsch told Mother Jones. “I had always thought that we run a good system. We’re decent. We don’t abuse people. We run safe facilities with good programs. It was just like, ‘How did we think it was okay to put human beings in cagelike settings?’”

When Bertsch returned to North Dakota, she did so with what could be considered a radical idea in the correctional setting: “To implement our humanity.”

Kim Ekhaugen, Director of International Cooperation for Norway’s prison system, told the ABA Journal that Norwegian prison guards are taught from the start to see and engage with prisoners on a humane level. Each officer oversees no more than four prisoners, and each is trained to de-escalate conflicts. Norwegian prison officials understand that prisoners are members of the community who will one day be released.

Norwegians also have a different philosophy when it comes to punishment. According to Specter, they don’t support punitive or harsh conditions of confinement, because they see the loss of freedom and family contact inherent in a prison sentence as the punishment. As such, prisoner housing areas in Norway are more like college dorm rooms than cell blocks. [See: PLN, Jan. 2014, p.1].

“There’s a different philosophy, which is that the loss of freedom is the punishment,” said Specter. “And that’s it.”

Karianne Jackson, Director of Correctional Practices in North Dakota, accompanied Bertsch on her tour of Norway’s prison system. She told the Bismarck Tribune that what she saw was “too hard to ignore” – because it worked. Norway’s recidivism rate is about 25 percent, much lower than the American rate, which is estimated at 50 to 70 percent depending on how “recidivism” is defined. Also, Norwegian prisons are much less violent than in the U.S.

Jackson and Bertsch are attempting to implement something like the Norwegian concept of “dynamic security” in North Dakota. According to Mother Jones, the practice is based on the idea that better relationships between prisoners and staff reduce the potential for violence. But given the paramilitary nature of the U.S. corrections system, Bertsch and Jackson have their work cut out for them.

“How do you get somebody who thinks they’re in law enforcement to figure out you need to be more of an empath, more of a social worker, a friend, a mentor?” Jackson wondered.

It’s an uphill battle, but Specter’s tours seem to be making a difference. In North Dakota, wardens have improved prison conditions and devised ways for prisoners to earn more freedoms. Bertsch and Jackson have greatly reduced the likelihood that prisoners will be punished with solitary confinement, and have established transition programs to help ease prisoners from solitary back into the general population. One facility even ended a ban on guards shaking hands with prisoners. These small changes are a start and, according to Wetzel, will have a significant impact on corrections and criminal justice as a whole.

“You can’t make an honest argument that how someone is treated while incarcerated doesn’t affect how they behave when they get out,” he said.

Drexel University’s Department of Criminology is also taking students to Scandinavia as part of a program led by Assistant Professor Dr. Jordan Hyatt.

“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 Abbey Meyer, a criminology student. “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.”

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

Dr. Hyatt, now in his third year at Drexel, previously taught in Sweden, where he was struck by the country’s emphasis on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment – something reflected in its ban on the death penalty and 21-year maximum prison sentence.

“The goal is not to transplant their system here,” Hyatt insisted. “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.” 

Sources:,,,,,, Daily Mail


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