Prison Rehabilitation: Can California Learn From Norway?
California has a recidivism problem.
According to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, two-thirds of those incarcerated in the state will return to prison within three years, either through new offenses or parole violations.
In Norway, on the other hand, recidivism has fallen from 60-70% in the 1980s to around 20% today. The country attributes the change to reforms that prioritize rehabilitation over punishment – and to its guiding question on prison policy: when prisoners are released, what kind of neighbor does society want them to be?
Prisons in Norway and parts of Western Europe minimize the institutional aspects of prison life. Prisoners can wear their own clothes, cook their own food, and have relative freedom of movement within prison walls.
Democratic Assemblyman Carlos Villapudua of Stockton read about the Norwegian model last year and this year offered a scaled-down version for California.
The law project, AB 2730passed unanimously and is now heading to the Senate, with support from both prison reform advocates and the union representing prison guards.
The idea is that prisoners with two years or less to serve would be chosen by the warden and moved to a campus on the prison grounds where they would cook their own food, do their own laundry, and make their own beds. And most importantly for Villapudua, they would receive professional training in areas that need more workers.
For the district of Villapudua, this means training truckers to fight a shortage of ready truckers to take long-haul routes. For some inmates, this means obtaining a Class A driver’s license to drive large trucks before release.
“That way by the time they go out they already have their Class A license and they know who their bosses are,” Villapudua said. “That’s how desperately needed this area is.
“Their first week, maybe even before they get out, they can have a paycheck because (the trucking companies) now have signing bonuses.”
Villapudua said he helped four formerly incarcerated people obtain Class A licenses and connected them with employers, for jobs he said paid more than $80,000. But the process, he said, is backward.
Instead of waiting for people to be released, facing their first days outside of prison trying to find jobs, Villapudua said it made more sense to use their last two years in prison. interior for vocational training.
The idea of a more community-based model for American prisons has began to take hold in several statespart of a long-running effort by the California-based Prison Law Project to fly lawmakers to Norway where they can see the model first-hand.
In North Dakotaa dozen inmates live in a trailer called the Transitional Housing Unit, living in their own rooms with lockable doors. In Connecticut, they can take a crafting course at a local community college. In Idaho, the Marshall Project reporteda prisoner, a guard and their families went fishing together.
“Can we snap our fingers and turn California prisons into Norway? No,” said Sharon Dolovich, director of UCLA’s prison law and policy program. “But it is an urgently needed step to transform the experience of incarceration into what it is really meant to be.”
Despite Norway’s success in recidivism, the prison system has attracted international attention over the past decade for a different reason: Anders Breivik, the man who killed 77 people in 2011 bombings and gun attacks alleged in a trial in 2016 that he was mistreated.
That’s when most people learned its accommodations: Three separate cells, access to video games and the freedom to cook your own food. According to the BBC, he built a gingerbread house as part of a prison competition.
That’s not quite what Villapudua said he envisions in California.
“People always think reform is a bad word,” Villapudua said. “The key is to separate the people who know they made a mistake and who know they’re going to be normal citizens again, not being there to pretend. If you’re pretending, you go back to the general population.
The bill passed the Assembly’s Public Safety and Appropriations Committees unanimously, and then again in the Assembly in May.
It doesn’t come with any money, so if passed and signed by the governor, the California prison system would have to pay for it as part of its own budget, which is $14.2 billion in 2022-23. .
No specific conviction would disqualify inmates from participation, which Dolovich said is an important aspect of the bill that allows a much wider range of inmates to participate.
Villapudua said he deliberately left the program open to everyone, not just “no-no-no,” a colloquialism for an inmate with non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual sentences.
“Everyone is so ready to exclude the very people we’re trying to help,” Dolovich said. “Who are these elusive no-no-no’s?”
Not all details are spelled out, Villapudua said, and questions remain. Would inmates leave prison to work in the outside world? Can they get jobs as dockworkers in ports, which require a background check?
In a letter of support in the Legislative Assembly, California Correctional Peace Officers Association lobbyist Matthew Easley wrote that the bill would be an improvement over job-training programs offered today. In his letter, he ridiculed existing programs as often having “no correlation with the needs of the communities in which inmates will be released” and failing to prepare them for employment.
And, he said, the community setting would help prisoners who want to be rehabilitated by separating them from prisoners who don’t.
“Even with the proper motives and intentions, the pressures exerted by other inmates can be too much to stay on the straight and narrow,” Easley wrote on May 23. environment like those who have no intention of improving.
Cal Matters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media company explaining California policies and politics.