This article can be found published on the Daily Local News‘ website, the Delaware County Daily Times‘ website, The Mercury‘s website, The Times Herald‘s website and The Reporter‘s website.
This is the first story in a series looking at prison reform in the United States, especially in Pennsylvania and local counties, and the impact of Norway’s Correctional System.
Concrete walls. Barbed-wire fences. Guard towers. Overcrowding. Isolation. Violence. Inmate. Prisoner.
“It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population,” said Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2015. “The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago, despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.”
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 2.2 million people were incarcerated in the United States as of 2014, with 1.5 million of them in state and federal facilities.
Of those millions of Americans who find themselves locked away, they can face a cruel dehumanization between prison rape, violence, solitary confinement and more, despite what popular shows such as “Orange is the New Black” may show.
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West Chester University’s Sami Abdel-Salam, an assistant professor of criminal justice, has studied the prison system in both the United States and overseas in Norway, and is trying to spread a message of prison reform for a country that has roughly 1 out of every 143 people behind bars.
On June 6, Abdel-Salam, joined by Deputy Warden Jan Strømnes of Halden Prison in Norway, presented at the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minnesota.
Their topic was “Breaking the Cycle: A More Humane Approach to Criminal Justice,” and the two spoke in front of roughly 50 people on the first day of the three-day forum.
“Generally speaking, people were interested in trying to understand how or what specific features of the Norwegian system could be implemented in the U.S. and how it would look in comparison to what currently exists at Halden Prison,” Abdel-Salam said. “The overwhelming feedback we received was an interest in improving the correctional system in the United States and trying to look at how a system such as Halden’s could be realistically implemented here.”
Halden Prison, located two hours from Oslo in Norway, was the first prison in the country to be built after an overhaul of the correctional system and focuses on helping inmates prepare for life outside.
There are no cells at Halden, but instead rooms which are reminiscent of college dorms. The inmates have outdoor space with trees and there are even group dinners with the corrections officers and the inmates.
“Halden Prison is a much more rehabilitated environment,” Abdel-Salam said. “It has a lot more programs available within the facility and it’s a lot more about positive interaction between correctional staff and inmates. It’s certainly much more humane than the American prisons are designed to be.”
Abdel-Salam has firsthand knowledge of Halden after teaching at the American College of Norway last year, and he organized a class trip to the prison, where he met Strømnes.
Drawing off the system in Norway, Abdel-Salam and Strømnes compared Halden to American prisons and presented realistic reforms which could be implemented in the United States.
“Our presentation lasted a long time,” Abdel-Salam said. “There was a lot of interest at the end by members of the audience, particularly about the Norwegian Correctional System.”
While they were in Minnesota for the forum, both visited a maximum-security prison outside of Minneapolis, which was an eye-opening experience.
The trip, showing the stark contrast between the two correctional systems, has given more credence to the belief that something has to change with American prisons.
“The inmates in the prison were locked down in very basic cells that you could literally stretch your arms out and touch the walls on one side and the other,” Abdel-Salam said. “There was very little lighting penetrating the cells and they spent 23 hours a day in those cells. One person told us there was such little stimulation that it’s not uncommon for the inmates to sleep 18 hours a day because their bodies are unstimulated and shutting down. The prison was about security and solitary confinement and had no real effort to prepare them for life beyond the prison walls.”