Attorney hopes to import the best practices of European prisons to the United States
In Idaho, prison officials started small: adding carpeting, plants and color, including murals along the hallways. In North Dakota, “man camps” left over from the state’s oil boom have been repurposed as independent housing units (which also eased overcrowding), and a new law allows the state to prioritize inmate admissions based on the offense’s severity.
In Pennsylvania, Wetzel, who is vice president of the ASCA, created transitional housing units that have expanded re-entry and counseling services for inmates nearing release. Changes of varying degrees are being made across each state’s system, including reducing the use of solitary confinement or administrative segregation.
Rebecca Witt, a re-entry specialist and corrections counselor who helped design the transitional housing unit at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands, says re-entry used to be simply about helping inmates obtain Social Security cards or other identification.
Now, Witt’s voluntary unit provides a range of services. Her 90 inmates (150 are on a waiting list) have their own library and computers with limited internet access. There are parenting classes, mentoring opportunities and extended family visits.
Witt also tries to tailor services to specific needs. When one inmate approached her with concerns about how he communicated, Witt launched a public speaking competition. Most programming used to be done in-house. Today, outside agencies come in, a practice known in Norway as the “import model.”
“Before, the focus was on keeping the community out and keeping the prisoners in,” Witt says. “Now, it’s bring the community in, so we can get [the prisoners] out. It’s a complete paradigm shift.”
Witt’s transitional housing unit has a recidivism rate of 10 percent since 2016, compared to the state’s average of 60 percent.
Treating inmates as people
Before it began its own reform process about 30 years ago, Norway’s recidivism rates mirrored those of the United States. Ekhaugen says his country isn’t trying to impose its practices but rather to share knowledge. “Correctional services is kind of a monopoly organization,” he says. “You need to look out of your own box to learn something new.”
Inmates who are in states that have participated in Specter’s program are learning, too. In Idaho, Sean Patrick Cambron, who’s serving 25 years to life for a murder he committed when he was 18, will be eligible for parole in 2019. To prepare for re-entry into society, he takes part in as much programming as he can, including painting murals.
“You stop acting like an inmate when you’re not treated like an inmate,” Cambron says. “When you’re treated like a human being that made a mistake, that’s when change occurs.”
Of course, not all inmates can be rehabilitated, as Specter, Ekhaugen, Cambron and others admit. But policy shouldn’t be based on extremes, Specter says. The prisons he tours are the perfect rebuttal to the common perception that harsh correctional practices are a response to poor behavior among inmates, he says.
“Norway and Germany and Denmark and all these other places show that the exact opposite is true,” Specter says. “If the staff behave in a more humane, respectful, productive and constructive way, the people who are incarcerated will respond in kind.”
This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with the headline “Model Prisons: Attorney hopes to import the best of European practices to the United States."