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CO visits high-security prison in Norway, hopes to import Scandinavian model of incarceration in Calif.

CO Steve Durham was most surprised by the relaxed, happy demeanor of the officers and their casual interactions with inmates during his recent visit to Halden

Halden prison

Halden prison is one of Norway’s largest prisons with room for 227 inmates.

Kriminalomsorgen/Norwegian Correctional Service

By Anita Chabria
Los Angeles Times

TEHACHAPI, Calif. — Inside Halden Fengsel, a high-security prison in Norway, inmates choose their own clothing. Knockoff track suits from designer brands such as Karl Lagerfeld are favored.

They buy fresh produce from their well-stocked grocery store and chop onions with knives from their shared kitchens.

They play in bands and walk in the woods and pray in a graceful holy room where clerestory windows beam sunlight down onto slate floors and a compass shows the direction of Mecca.

But what surprised California corrections officer Steve “Bull” Durham most on a recent visit to Halden wasn’t the prisoners but the guards — how relaxed and happy his Norwegian counterparts were, and how casually they interacted with the inmates.

“I am blown away by it,” he said.

Durham has been a California corrections officer for 25 years, much of it in the remote reaches of Tehachapi, east of Bakersfield. He looks like the kind of guy you’d nickname Bull. Big and bald, he leans forward when he walks, like he’s battling the wind, or the world.

I met him on the sidewalk in front of the elegant Grand Hotel in Oslo, just down the street from the stately Royal Palace of King Harald V .

Durham was one of about a dozen members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., or CCPOA, the union that represents the women and men who work in our prisons, who let me tag along with them to Norway recently.

They were there to see firsthand what all the hype is when it comes to the so-called Scandinavian model of incarceration, which California hopes to import in coming months.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is in the process of converting San Quentin into an institution — via the “Scandinavian method"— that is focused on rehabilitation, not punishment.

Tiny, rich, predominantly white and with a population roughly half that of Los Angeles County, Norway doesn’t seem like a good model for anything in California. But Newsom isn’t trying to replicate what Norway does, just adapt the basic premise to create a shift in how and why we incarcerate.

The Scandinavian method acknowledges that people rarely go to prison for life. Instead, it focuses on the reality that most people who go into prison are going to come outagain, and it’s safer for all of us if they have a plan and the skills for a future that doesn’t include more crime. That credo demands that prison is made to be more humane, and more normalized, turning the guards into at least part-time social workers.

“It’s radical,” Durham said, but he’s all for it.

The CCPOA has long supported Newsom. But it is also one of the toughest and most powerful unions in the state and is not known for soft-on-crime stances. So it may surprise some that the union supports the Scandinavian model, even as fentanyl, homelessness and a misguided fear of rising crime have combined to swing the political pendulum back toward more incarceration.

Durham, a CCPOA vice president, said corrections officers in California are literally sick and tired from being cogs in a machine that doesn’t work — for society, for those incarcerated or for guards who want a career that doesn’t kill them.

“We are tired of seeing our partners in a casket,” Durham said. “The stuff that we see is not good.”

Being a U.S. corrections officer is not a great gig, union benefits aside. It comes with levels of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that far outpace other professions, even in law enforcement.

Corrections officers are quick to tell any listener that the psychological stress and constant threat of violence eat at their health, leaving them vulnerable to ailments including heart attacks, ulcers and fallen arches. They drink too much, get divorced often and die by suicide at a rate 39% higher than the rest of the working-age population, according to the Vera Institute of Justice . Their life expectancy is more than 15 years below the national average.

Many people assume they are all abusive brutes, in dead-end jobs.

“It comes down to the mental health and well-being of our staff,” Durham said. “We have to try to change.”

Durham shared those depressing statistics as we rode in a bus to Halden, about two hours outside of Oslo , on an overcast day in September. The drive there took us through picturesque fields where cattle milled around sturdy barns, then up into hills covered in spruce and pine. It felt like traversing the back roads of Napa to Tahoe — all classy ruralism.

Nothing about our arrival at Halden dispelled that, no armed guard towers or razor wire. The only clue this was a prison was the nearly milelong wall that surrounds it, 20 feet high and curving at the top with an elegance that Scandinavians seem able to put into everything they build, regardless of purpose. It was, as a certain former president might describe it, a big, beautiful wall.

“Jeez, look at that wall,” one of the officers exclaimed as we stepped off the bus.

Critics deride Halden as a luxury prison that coddles, but it is the star of the Norwegian system, opened in 2010 with a design and a mantra: Prison should not be defined by the agony of discomfort and fear. The punishment for those incarcerated at Halden is being removed from family and friends — being behind the wall. Not the experience inside it.

Before Norway embraced this new model of incarceration in the 1990s, its prisons looked much like ours do today and recidivism rates were stubbornly high, hovering near 70% for some crimes. Now, though not as low as many had hoped, those rates have fallen to about 20% of people re-offending within five years of release — one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world.

In California , about 45% of those released are convicted of a new crime within three years; about 20% return to prison.

The prison population in Norway is vastly smaller than ours — Halden holds about 250 men, fewer than your average county jail — but there are similarities with the U.S. , starting with racial diversity. Forty percent of prisoners in Norway are not citizens by birth — they come from more than 25 countries, many of them migrants from places including Sudan and Pakistan .

Ninety percent of inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and about 70% have a personality disorder. More than half have only a primary school education.

Gangs, said Helge Valseth, the governor of Halden (our version of a warden), are a big problem, inside of prisons and out.

What is different at Halden isn’t the prisoners but the guards, Valseth said.

In Norway, corrections is a profession that has pathways into other branches of law enforcement. Officers start off in a two-year college program, paid as they go, and must continue their education, Valseth said. The Norwegian guards union has a partnership with management that allows officers to have a say in how a facility is run, who is hired and what the policies are.

In all, said Tor Erik Larsen, a leader of the Union of Norwegian Correctional Services Employees, it’s a good job — one that comes with respect and provides work that feels meaningful. Under the Scandinavian system, expectations of and from corrections officers extend far beyond maintaining control.

“I need to know what makes a man tick,” Larsen said. “And he needs to know what makes me tick.”

That philosophy is called dynamic security. In the United States , we use static security: lockdowns, body armor, mace. Rehabilitation is largely left up to inmates to figure out on their own through a hodgepodge of programs — some good, some questionable.

The Norwegians depend on relationships to maintain control and highly trained corrections officers to be deeply involved in rehabilitation.

Therapy, job skills, addiction treatment — corrections officers in Norway are responsible for facilitating all of it, and for building the trust and mutual respect needed for inmates to feel like someone is on their side when it comes to changing, no matter what crime they committed.

Durham knows there will be many California officers who are not just skeptical, but downright hostile to that idea — he’s cognizant that it sounds like telling officers, “Hey, from now on you have to hug every inmate on your unit.”

But Durham believes the current system leaves inmates without enough autonomy to learn how to be different. Everything is done for them or to them. He uses the grocery store inside Halden as an example. In the U.S. , meals come and go on a tray, no effort required. In Norway, many facilities only provide one pre-made meal a day. Prisoners are encouraged to buy groceries, make food for themselves, share meals with officers and fellow inmates and clean up afterward.

U.S. prisons “are not teaching [inmates] any life lessons,” Durham said. In Norway, “they give them the ability to function in life.”

The same goes for officers, Durham said. Right now, U.S. corrections officers have few opportunities to interact with inmates other than keeping order and imposing discipline in part because rules often forbid getting too close. U.S. officers, Durham said, have to be trusted to act as mentors — like their Norwegian counterparts.

It’s that mutual respect that makes the Scandinavian model work. And it does work. Violence is rare at Halden.

I met an inmate named Roger (I am not using his last name for privacy reasons) in a prison auto shop. Roger was incarcerated for sexually abusing his daughter, he said.

A round-faced, bespectacled man, he was changing the oil on an Audi — largely unsupervised by officers — surrounded by tools that in the United States would be considered weapons: a hefty hammer, socket wrenches, saws, a drill. In the next room, other inmates were using power tools to cut wood.

As a child molester, Roger is the type of prisoner who typically would not be safe in a U.S. prison — always under threat of attack from other inmates and often looked down on by officers.

He’s the kind of guy that most of us have a hard time feeling empathy for. But one day in the not-too-distant future, Roger is getting out — as are most people who go to prison in the U.S.

At Halden, Roger said, he is learning “how to not think about my child like an abuser” would.

Norway, like much of Scandinavia, has a reputation for allowing the common good to frequently outweigh individual desires and demands. That philosophy presumably makes it easier to create a system that helps someone like Roger.

But U.S. culture prizes vengeance. How many times has some variation of “I hope you rot in prison” been uttered with righteousness in film and television?

Our culture wants wrongdoers to suffer, even at the expense of public safety. But as uncomfortable as it is to hear Roger talk about the help he is receiving, isn’t that what we should want? For criminals to stop seeing the rest of us as prey?

“It’s been a real good program,” Roger said. “I am starting on the ground floor and building up.”

Down a hallway I met David, who was from Lithuania and serving time for selling drugs. The lack of fear, of guards and other inmates, he said, took away much of the stress of being in prison. It allowed him the space to think about his future.

“I don’t need to be afraid that something will happen,” he said. “I don’t think I will come out a worse person. I feel I could come out better.”

Tiffanie Thomas, a San Quentin corrections officer who was on the tour, told me bringing this system to California “seems realistic.”

As a female officer who is often alone and outnumbered at San Quentin, she has long depended on relationships with inmates for her safety and theirs.

“We do a lot of this already,” Thomas said. “We just didn’t have the words to put to it.”

But, she added, relationships take time. If the state brings the Scandinavian model to California , it is going to require something that will, even if they support the model, make both prison officials and reformers unhappy:

More corrections officers.

Right now, there are too few officers on duty to spend any meaningful time with their charges. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has 21,220 correctional officers and a statewide prison population of 93,649 — though that is expected to drop by nearly 10,000 in coming years. At San Quentin , there are 833 rank-and-file corrections officers and 3,504 incarcerated people, according to CDCR.

Often, there are two officers assigned to more than 120 inmates, Durham said, and that can jump to 160 depending on the facility and the time of day.

Thomas said she has been in charge of up to 200 inmates at once. In Norway, each guard is responsible for a few dozen inmates at most — a number that has increased because of budget cuts, much to the consternation of both guards and management.

But to the officers I was traveling with, it was still unimaginably low.

Durham never dreamed of spending his life inside prisons. Who does?

A Central Valley kid, he joined the Navy to escape the expectation that he would follow his father into construction. At 18, he found himself married, with a son and getting ready to deploy. But his wife at the time was diagnosed with a mental illness — bipolar disorder, he said — in an era when such things were barely understood, much less talked about.

One day, she took too many muscle relaxers. While he was trying to help her, his baby son, crawling around their waterbed, swallowed a penny. Durham scooped everyone up and made it to the hospital, but it was a breaking point.

He left the military and moved back home and soon found himself a single father. He needed help and stability and a job in a place without many options. So he became a prison guard.

No regrets, he said. But “if it was me, alone, I probably wouldn’t do it. But I had to support him.”

The job has taken its toll. His first week, he witnessed a stabbing. His old-school partner barely said a word about it, he said. But then, that partner rarely said anything useful at all. He was left to figure out a foreign and brutal world largely on his own.

Over the years, there has been an endless flow of trauma. The first time Durham had to help lower a hanged man, he remembers the legs in his face, and being grateful for the strength to hold the man up, even though it was too late. More than 20 years later, he remembers that inmate’s name. Beale.

He knows there are “bad apples” in the profession and there are certainly too many instances of officers committing crimes and abusing their power. He’s also heard the criticism that it doesn’t matter if corrections officers like their job or not, because unlike inmates, they can leave whenever they want.

Even as we rightfully shrink our prison population and rethink policies that turned incarceration into an industry, the reality remains that prisons will continue to exist because society does demand accountability for committing crimes.

The Scandinavian model doesn’t promise to end crime or fix society’s problems. But it has answered an obvious if ignored question: If guards have no hope, how can prisoners?

Walking out of Halden down a gravel path at the edge of the forest, Durham told me it was “weird” to see corrections officers smiling and laughing at work. The visit gave him hope, though he knows that as it did in Norway, change will take decades in California.

Rain started to fall and the air took on the vibrant scent of moisture hitting earth.

Ahead of us, a man with a scooter walked with a man pushing a wheelchair, oblivious to our approach. I couldn’t tell if either or neither were inmates, but it didn’t seem to matter, to us or them.

For the first time, maybe in his life, Durham was relaxed inside a prison wall.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times .

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