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.”
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.”