Prison systems in Norway look very different than those in Oregon. The Scandinavian country is known to have a low incarceration rate, one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world and a very low crime rate. Oregon corrections officials thought perhaps they could learn something from Norway. So they organized a small group, including state lawmakers, to go on a visit, as a handful of other U.S. states have done in recent years.
Heidi Steward, the assistant director of correctional services at the Oregon Department of Corrections, said the learning visit was a good fit because the Norwegian system aligns with the goals the state has for its own correctional officers.
“We expect our correctional officers to interact with individuals in our care and custody,” she said. “We expect them to role model and reinforce positive behavior and we expect them to redirect negative behavior. And that’s really the foundation of what our system is.”
When the delegation returned, they decided to take the idea further and to organize a kind of exchange program. Last fall, 14 Oregon corrections officials and officers visited a Norwegian prison in a first-of-its-kind program. The corrections officers also stayed with Norwegian officers in their homes to get the full experience of the culture.
Steward and Correctional Capt. Toby Tooley shared their findings with the larger law enforcement and corrections world at the Justice Reinvestment Summit in Salem, which is where we sat down with them to talk on “Think Out Loud.” Tooley said when he first stepped foot onto a Norway prison, he was somewhat overwhelmed. It was more like a college campus, he said, than a prison.
“This can’t possibly be the same a inmate population that we have in Oregon because everything was so bright and vibrant … they had trees inside of their prison,” Tooley said.
Tooley, who has been with the Oregon Department of Corrections for more than a dozen years, said he was impressed with the way the Norwegian officials treated prisoners with behavioral and mental health issues. Because of the high ratio of officers to inmates, the officers were able to take far more time to redirect a negative behavior and build relationships with incarcerated people.
Tooley said Oregon will never have those kinds of numbers, but he is excited about the possibilities.
“I would look around and think, Why couldn’t we have these kinds of things in our prisons in Oregon?” he said.
Kim Ekhaugen, director of the International Unit in the Directorate of the Norwegian Correctional Service, traveled to the summit in Oregon. Ekhaugen said the Norwegian system is driven by the idea that incarcerated people are “human beings in prisons.”
“They are sentenced to prison to do their time,” Ekhaugen said. “And that’s the punishment.”
The philosophy behind Norwegian correctional institutions, Ekhaugen said, is to house people in a “normal” way, which will adjust them well for release.
Tooley said that while American and Norwegian cultures are clearly different, he’s excited by the the Oregon Department of Corrections’ commitment to bring some elements of the Norwegian system to the state. Heidi Steward said she and other officials recognized the ways Norway “humanized” its system.
“And so while we have made a lot of progress in that direction over many years,” Steward said, “we are nowhere, nowhere close to … Norway.”
The DOC has already started a pilot program inspired by the trip. It involves special resource teams to work with inmates with the most severe mental illnesses. That population is often most hesitant to leave their cell and participate in positive programming and activities. Although there’s not yet any additional funding for this program, corrections officials say Oregon State Penitentiary staff are using free time “to discuss individual needs, create innovative solutions and implement new ideas in order to help those on the unit.”