Europe Offers Lessons for Overhauling U.S. Prison ‘Culture,’ Conference Told

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Leann Bertsch

North Dakota corrections chief Leann Bertsch changed her state's approach to solitary after a visit to Norway. Photo by Cheryl Corley/NPR

Prisons in Europe offer alternative visions of corrections that increasing numbers of U.S. authorities are using to change incarceration “culture” at home, a conference at John Jay College was told Thursday.

“Sometimes you just have to see something radically different in order to envision something different,” said Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

After Bertsch and a delegation of state officials visited the Norwegian prison system in 2015, they began thinking about how to apply some of the lessons they learned as part of an ambitious effort to overhaul the state’s prison structures and practices.

“Sometimes you just have to see something so radically different in order to envision something different,” she said in a keynote speech to the 15th Annual  Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America.

The symposium, entitled “Is America Ready for Prison Reform?” was attended by journalists, practitioners, scholars and prison reform activists from around the country.

The meeting was told that although American corrections systems were beginning to change, they weren’t moving fast enough.

“We have an archipelago of prisons and jails in this country, and they all operate mostly on their own,” said Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice.

Bertsch, Turner and other panelists warned Americans had become desensitized to fact that over two million people were behind bars —the world’s highest per capita rate of incarceration–and more than twice that number were under some form of post-release supervision.

The key to changing the culture was rethinking how inmates were treated inside correctional facilities, the conference was told.

“Creating a more respectful culture within the prison, treating them with respect and dignity,” Turner said, noting that one of the top priorities was to “normalize the environment as much as possible.

Stanley Richards, a former incarceree who is now vice president of The Fortune Society, said some cities such as New York had already adopted measures to reduce the incarcerated population.

“The exciting part about this moment is the transformation we see in this system, particularly in New York,” said Richards.

“When I was in the system, it was around 22,000 people, now down to 5,400 people and going down.”

At Guggenheim Symposium: (L-R) , Stanley Richards, executive VP of The Fortune Society; Leann Bertsch, North Dakota Corrections chief; Stephen Handelman, director John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice; and Vera Institute President Nicholas Turner.

Turner rejected the “flawed” notion that mass incarceration had improved public safety, and he blamed the media for misleading accounts that sensationalizing violent crimes in a way that increased perceptions of insecurity.

“(Violent crimes are) what the reptilian brain taps into—that’s mother’s milk for us in this country, for decades and decades.”

Turner added that the media needs to stop cherry picking cases and to look at the broader context of issues.

Bertsch pointed out that while data showing crime rates were continuing to drop  have failed to persuade people that it was time to rethink incarceration policies.

“Criminal justice is an emotional subject,” she said. “The thing that got me the most when I started in this job was when policy makers would say, ‘What’s your inmate count?’ as a pure number, as opposed to [discussing] a human being.

“We try not to use that language and make it about people.”

One example raised by the participants was how public fears of a crime increase were distorting the current debate about New York’s bail reform, enacted last month.

“A handful of bail reform cases have become the face of why bail reform is wrong, and so now we see our political leaders under the pressure of the story to go back and change bail reform because it’s not working. Our role as advocates and journalists to tell both sides of the story,” Richards said.

Bertsch said that advocates and the media have to acknowledge the risk of reform, “but the flip side of not taking any risk is this undue harm by the system to a group of people that makes communities sicker and less safe.

“We have to address this risk-averse (behavior) that drives some of the harm our systems doing.”

When asked about the overall challenge of changing the culture of incarceration nationwide, Turner said the system is disaggregated.

“It’s a huge challenge, there’s no one big lever that you pull that makes the whole system operate in coordination and move in one direction, which makes the job of journalists very important to recognize what’s working and not working,” he responded.

“The only way that all of this changes is if democracy makes a change,” Turner continued “In the early 1970s, we were doing the same thing as Western European countries and then we went bananas.

“Democracy got us here. We chose to elect people who were happy to run tough on crime, and we thought they were providing us with safety and the only way that this comes undone is if Democracy undoes it bit by bit, piece by piece, and there’s no more important role than the media in that.”

One thought on “Europe Offers Lessons for Overhauling U.S. Prison ‘Culture,’ Conference Told

  1. I absolutely agree that huge changes are needed. Part of what would help in constructing a narrative about these issues is for people to share more of the stories about people who have experienced injustice and are now experiencing greater justice while also providing objective data on public safety figures so that people can see how changes have impacted public safety.

    Countering misinformation with calm, logical objective data as well as the rationale for the need to reform in the first place based on injustices suffered by so many would be helpful in soothing any fears, if the data really do support that things are safe. If there is objective evidence that things are in fact less safe, that needs to be honestly acknowledged and discussed. That doesn’t mean that the bail reform laws should automatically be changed. Too many people have been wrongfully held for years and there is justifiably passion and anger about the injustice that has done. However, if incidents are happening that are concerning, people’s fears and worries do need to be heard and acknowledged. Leaders need to communicate maturity, wisdom, concern for public safety and and concern for the injustices caused by the previous system.

    Part of what may have been challenging is that a small number of people within the criminal justice reform movement have in the past made some extreme statements such as a desire for “prison abolition.” These kinds of statements do not inspire confidence in the overall reasonableness and thoughtfulness of the movement. I am a huge supporter of bail reform, want to push the envelope as far as safely possible in regards to criminal justice reform and do not like to see anyone “punished” but always favor rehabilitation and healing.

    There are exceptions to every extreme statement and it is better to acknowledge them up front, while also emphasizing that the idea itself is still a good one. This idea particularly applies when people are talking about expanding the movement on criminal justice reform to people who have committed violent acts. (Here I am speaking generally on the criminal justice reform movement, not New York’s bail reform laws, which I understand are intended to apply to crimes that are at least categorized as nonviolent.)

    On the issue of expanding the criminal justice reform movement to include violent acts, I couldn’t agree more. We should. But when people seem to insinuate that violence isn’t maybe as scary as some might think or that people who do have fears of violence are just a little too anxious, this is also nonsense. There are some truly violent people who are very, very scary. There are also many, many other people who committed violent acts, for a variety of reasons including impulsiveness, youth, mental health issues, acting under the influence of drugs, and much more, but who are in fact very good, stable people at this point and who should not be in prison.

    Our society has responded to some perceived threats of violence in a way that is nothing short of crazy. In “The Meaning of Life” the authors describe a young woman whose ex-boyfriend killed a man who sexually assaulted her. She had “no advance knowledge of the crime, nor did she encourage or conspire with her ex to kill the man” (Mauer and Nellis 20). However, because her ex-boyfriend told her after the crime had been completed and she failed to immediately inform the police, she was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. This woman had “believed that cooperating, telling the truth, including about the fact that she did not contact the authorities once she had learned what her ex-boyfriend had done, and explaining what happened, would set things right” (Mauer and Nellis 20). She should never have been incarcerated at all, much less given a life sentence.

    There are so many people who have been accused or convicted of violent crimes who are not well served by the justice system and are not in fact necessarily even dangerous. They may need other counseling and support but they should not be in prison in the first place. There are others who may have changed dramatically in a few short years and should not continue to be held. When people are held in secure facilities, these facilities should be humane and therapeutic.

    Continuing to hold people in prison out of a desire for “punishment” rather then in the interest of public safety is wrong. But debating “prison abolition” means we need to rapidly move into debating the most extreme cases (people with long term predatory behavior, serial killers, etc), because extreme statements move the conversation to the extreme. If it is an “all or nothing” kind of issue, people will understandably focus on the exceptions rather than the overall value of the idea.

    It is not helpful for us to discuss whether someone let Ted Bundy needs to be in prison. But that is the kind of thing people end up talking about when ideas like “prison abolition” are put forward because it one of many obvious exceptions to the extreme statement. It makes the whole idea look weak and poorly conceived. It erodes trust and confidence in the movement when the movement itself is based on ideas that are so powerfully true and based on common sense that broad coalitions of otherwise ideologically different people have been able to find common ground on them. The overall idea of reducing incarcerating is a wise and needed idea, but extreme statements are a disservice to the larger message.

    So I would encourage people to acknowledge that violence and problems exist without diminishing or denying that reality, while also advocating for a more logical, humane response to the many people who are good, caring people but who have had struggles and have engaged in actions that are violent. I do not advocate incarcerating people to “punish” them but do believe there are cases in which people are not ready, willing or able to be safe. When that is the case we need to acknowledge that thoughtfully and maturely and look for whatever creative, flexible solutions may help them change. Sometimes incarceration may be needed. That does not undermine the overall value of the idea of substantially reducing people who are incarcerated, including people who have engaged in acts that are violent.

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