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Reimagining incarceration: American corrections professionals explore the ‘Norway model’

What, if any, Norwegian concepts can we implement in the United States?

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By One Voice United

In the summer of 2022, One Voice United, a national organization committed to amplifying the voices of the corrections workforce, led a week-long journey of 25 corrections professionals from the United States to Norway.

The purpose of this trip, documented in a short film titled “Changing the Dynamic: A journey of exploration between the Norwegian and American prison systems,” was to bring union leaders, staff and members from many of the most influential local, national and independent unions in the United States to reimagine the concept of incarceration in the U.S. They were tasked with determining what, if any, Norwegian concepts could be implemented back home.

Participants hailed from across the country, bringing a diversity of perspectives to the exploration of new ideas. They sought to understand the differences between the Norwegian prison system, often lauded for its excellence, and the U.S. system, which is characterized by high recidivism rates, poor staff retention, and alarming rates of PTSD among staff.

In the U.S. the “Norway Model” has long been studied, leading hundreds of administrators to travel abroad and return with hopes of replicating Norwegian success. However, despite good intentions, major differences in resources, culture, scope, size, staff training, labor-management relations, staffing ratios and conditions of confinement have left the U.S. system in a continued state of failure. This begs the question, what are we missing? Certainly, the cultures are different, however, crime happens everywhere, and there must be critical components of the “Norway Model” that make the Norwegian system work.

One Voice United challenged these 25 frontline corrections professionals to explore the Norwegian system first-hand, engage with administrators, union leaders, staff and inmates, and uncover the critical components of the “Norway Model” that might be applicable in the U.S.

Three key differences between the two systems emerged during the trip.

First, is the trust the Norwegian system places in their staff, their inclusion in the process, and the partnerships formed with the unions representing them. This critical component changes the dynamic between unions and administrators, shifting it from an “us against them” mentality to one of mutual respect and understanding. In fact, the concept of cooperation and collaboration with unions is so important that it is enshrined in their constitution.

This is in contrast to the United States where union rights are being continually challenged and opposed and staff are not included in discussions of change until the implementation stage.

This is not to say that Norwegian labor-management relations are not without challenges, but unlike the U.S where unions are often viewed as roadblocks, the Norwegian system recognizes both parties as equal and important factors.

In the latest Policing Matters podcast episode, Dr. Brian Lovins explores the impact of data-driven strategies combined with the human element in corrections. This episode sheds light on innovative approaches to rehabilitation that can significantly reduce recidivism and promote safer correctional environments. A must-listen for professionals seeking to enhance their knowledge and practices in the field of corrections. Listen to the full episode here.

The Norwegian system’s success also hinges on two other critical components: dedication to staff training and staffing ratios.

In Norway, new cadets undergo two years of combined academy and on-the-job training before they are certified to be correctional officers, and are given an hour of shift overlap to communicate with incoming and outgoing officers about those in their care.

Such practices are unheard of in the U.S. where many training academies are just a few short weeks and most officers must manage a staffing ratio of 1 Officer to 70 or more prisoners, making rehabilitation efforts virtually impossible. In Norway, the system is designed for a 1:1.1 staff to inmate ratio which allows staff to primarily focus on preparing inmates for re-entry.

Surveying the corrections landscape in the United States, no federal, state, or local system embodies the three key tenets of the Norway system; labor-management cooperation, a two-year college-level training academy, and a 1:1.1 staffing ratio.

Absent a commitment to these three pillars, implementation of a “Norway Model” might lead to some positive practices or experiments on a small scale but the systemic change so many are advocating for won’t come unless those crucial and systemic elements are put into place.

Finally, there may be one piece of the “Norway Model” that goes beyond the reach of corrections professionals, the Norwegian culture. Much of Norway’s success is a result of societal expectations and a belief that rehabilitation is possible.

It wasn’t always that way. Thirty years ago, Norway was mired in the same morass as we are today. It took bold leadership to turn that system around, but it all started by adopting a simple principle called “normalcy.”

The principle of “normalcy” assumes that the more “normal” the experience of incarceration, the more likely rehabilitation can be successful. Norwegians know that those incarcerated will eventually be their neighbors, so they asked the simple question, who do we want our neighbors to be?

In the U.S. we also want those returning home to be rehabilitated, law-abiding citizens but, to date, society has not been willing to commit the resources to make permanent or substantive change a reality.

Since our trip, little has changed in the U.S. corrections system, however, several OVU participants returned with a renewed sense of purpose and have initiated new ideas and programs based on what they witnessed in Norway.

Most recently, one of our participating groups collaborated on a statewide survey of correctional staff to assess job satisfaction, and another requested and was granted involvement in the hiring process of new officers.

Additionally, participants were able to gain firsthand knowledge and a deeper understanding of the “Norway Model,” which has allowed them to enter meaningful discussions about possible changes based on Norwegian principles.

As an organization, One Voice United would like to thank the men and women who participated in this intensive week of exploration and discovery and extend our heartfelt appreciation to our Norwegian hosts for their openness and willingness to answer virtually any question.

It is our hope that this film, which includes interviews, insights, and discussions, can be shared and used to ignite momentum, foster collaboration and bring about change in the lives of those living and working in our nation’s correctional system.

About One Voice United
One Voice United is a campaign to give correctional officers and staff a voice in national conversations about corrections and the criminal justice system.

Seeking to inject the unique knowledge and experience of frontline staff doing one of the toughest jobs in the country, One Voice United is a conduit for correctional officers and staff to raise issues of concern and voice their opinions.

Through One Voice United, we are amplifying the lived experiences of corrections officers and other staff who can contribute to breaking new ground that better informs comprehensive criminal justice reform for all stakeholders.