Scandinavian Penal History, Culture And Prison Practice: Embraced By The Welfare State

Editors: Peter Scharff Smith and Thomas Ugelvik
Publisher: London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 540p.
Reviewer: Doran Larson | May 2018

This collection of nineteen essays and the editors’ introduction and conclusion comes at a timely moment for US readers. Recent public awareness and discussion of the deplorable state of US prisons has sparked comparative study of the thinking and practices in what John Pratt has famously termed Scandinavia’s “exceptional” criminal justice landscape. Whereas nineteenth-century Europeans crossed the Atlantic to visit and study revolutionary American penal practices, today Americans seeking to address how and why US prisons operate at the scale and level of internal dysfunction and retributiveness that they do are making their way into Nordic prisons to understand how things might work differently. The state-sponsored catastrophe of US mass incarceration has made Scandinavian practice appear a practicing utopia. The problem addressed in Smith and Ugelvik’s book—both explicitly and by implication—is just how brightly visiting eyes over-burnish Scandinavian practice. Smith and Ugelvik’s collection sobers such appearances. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in—and prone to overvalue—the deep gulf between the US and what are assumed the most benevolent penal systems in the world. These essays fold and unfold what seems a binary contrast into layered assessments.

Two major questions animate these essays: how far do Scandinavian social welfare states—the left, soft, or maternal hand of state interventions into daily life—reach inside institutions whose missions necessarily include security and discipline? And can the stated, operating premise of daily Scandinavian practice, to “normalize” life inside so as to prepare the incarcerated for return to outside norms, actually be—and has it ever been—achieved? A third, common concern is the new light cast and pressure brought upon social welfarism and normalization by increasing diversification in previously homogenous nations.

The broad sense one gains here is that, once pursued, these questions yield not only mixed answers; they demand deeper study of the premises assumed. The welfare state’s soft imperatives are often interventionist; and they are so on the unquestioned assumption that (formerly) highly homogeneous people are in consensus about what a “normal” (Swedish, Danish, or Norwegian citizen should look and act like (Andersson) —assumptions deeply challenged by the pressures of recent influxes of immigrants (Smith). The farther incarcerated people fall away (or start) from national cultural norms, the more likely the state is to feel justified in disciplining such people by taking decision-making from them. Even notwithstanding the growing heterogeneity of national demographics, “normalization” appears problematic at best inside spaces that stand far from outside norms; there is nothing normal, for example, about sexual segregation, or spaces that include men with a few women who then become a vulnerable minority (Mathiassen) and that cannot accommodate all the disparate norms that even a racially and religiously homogeneous population brings inside.

For anyone who has researched, let alone worked inside US prisons, the characterizations here of exceptions to Scandinavian exceptionalism can, at times, appear trivial: for example, self-catering in Danish prisons may indeed be unable to facilitate “normal” meals for men accustomed to being served (by a wife or girlfriend), or to other ethnic cuisines (Milke and Smoyer). But we see this abnormal experience in kitchens that feature knives, peelers, mallets and other items the mere possession of which wound likely send anyone in US incarceration to punitive isolation, or end in someone’s back due to the rampant violence in US prisons—violence in part made inevitable by the gross understaffing of US prisons compared to common 1/1 staff/incarcerated ratios in Nordic prisons.

But such trivialization is just the problem these essays implicitly address. The gross differences in US and Northern European prison population scales and living conditions can easily allow unhelpful (Northern-European) self-congratulation or (Anglo-American) self-recrimination. The existence of relatively benign prisons does not make Anglo-American prison practice worst any more than these more benign prisons should receive congratulation simply for being more humane than Anglo-American prisons. One of the many strengths of this collection is its commitment to critical assessment of systems that could, in global comparison, ride on their laurels. It demonstrates what even the best prison regimes need in order to base their claimed merits on more than relative grounds: unceasing diligence among critical researchers and practitioners in measuring the distance from philosophy, to policy, to practice. Though contrasts with Anglo-American practice might have inspired this collection, it is as much for Europeans as for Americans; it is a public, internal cleaning of penal houses whose curb appeal may be oversold by being under-scrutinized.

The essays here focus their study on various practices in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway; just two deal with Nordic and Scandinavian trends more broadly. Read side by side, these nation-specific analyses make clear how, in practice, Scandinavian countries both share many premises and how differently they put them into practice; that is, read together these authors not only challenge the exceptionalist narrative, they break apart its monolithic application. There is, rather, a spectrum of both merely aspirational and practical exceptions, and not all of the latter are benign. Denmark, for example, practices many of the commonly assumed exceptions to fully retributive regimes, but it also condemns the formerly incarcerated to such severity of restitutive debt that unemployment (which suspends the payment schedules and qualifies all citizens for state income support) becomes a highly practical choice for the formerly incarcerated (Olesen). The length and conditions of pre-trial detention are a problem throughout these countries; but Sweden’s continuing attachment to isolating the untried—and its resistance to international criticism of this practice, perhaps precisely because it is assumed exceptionalism quarantines its thinking against critique (Langford et al)—presents an enduring exception to exceptionalism. V. Shammas looks at an exemplary problem that is challenging welfare and penal practices throughout Europe: how to deal with and treat non-citizen migrants and refugees. While many US visitors have favored Norway’s prisons for purposes of (shaming) comparison to the US (without recognizing that the most visited facilities, Halden and Bastoy, are exceptional even among Norwegian prisons, while Norwegian prisons are in many ways exceptional among Nordic penal facilities [Langelid]), today Norway is openly embracing more “austere” conditions for non-Norwegians, as well as sending them to cells in The Netherlands. In a similar light, Fransen observes that Denmark’s “open” prisons might be better called “not fully closed” (p. 100).

Along the way through these tonic and sobering essays we gain a strong sense of the social, political, and historical reasons why Scandinavian penal philosophy has been unlike much of the rest of the world, why more recently it has begun to change, and why concrete practice has at different times and places been either more severe or more lenient than official penal thinking might indicate. We also gather an aggregate sense, as noted, of how social welfare and penal practice fair as they encounter moments of balance, imbalance, and messy boundaries that result in fusion and diffusion: benign prisons can be spaces of aggressive welfarist intervention, while social welfare’s retreat under increasing pressure to handle immigrant populations can open the way for penal aggression inside facilities where up to two-thirds of the people held are foreign born. Finally, as though the preceding essays have already had notable effect on non-European scholars, the last essay of the collection sees American criminologists offering one of the most clear-eyed and balanced studies of tug of war between soft and hard practices that I have yet to read (Reiter et al).

The major problem in this collection is not in its content or arrangement but in its copy editing. As a typical American critic, who can read more widely but cannot write coherently in a second language, I admire the ability of the European researchers here to write so well in English. Yet most of the essays need a good deal of line-by-line correction. Happily, in no case is this so severe a problem as to obscure meaning.

The conclusions to be drawn from this collection are clear: Scandinavian penal practice, while still admirably constructive, is inevitably troubled by the misfit twin imperatives to provide security and discipline, and forward-looking healing and rehabilitation. Scandinavian Penal History, Culture and Prison Practice not only offers tonic insights into how these imperatives meet, occasionally mix, and often diverge; it is itself an example of best practices in sustaining unceasing self-critique. Rather than our continuing to see those imprisoned in Anglo-American prisons as held exclusively by the right hand of the state and those in Scandinavian prisons as helped by the left, Smith and Ugelvik and their authors parse the tug of war that occurs in the latter institutions, where “you are grasped by the right and left hands of the state simultaneously” (Smith and Ugelvik, p. 10). This book is highly recommended for researchers and practitioners looking north for models of penal practice and reform.

Doran Larson, Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Literature & Creative Writing, Director of The American Prison Writing Archive, and the Hamilton Program in Jurisprudence, Law, and Justice Studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York

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