A “Love Affair With Lock and Key”: Reflections on Criminal Justice

In September of this year, we missed an interesting article over at the The Guardian profiling […]

Will McDavid / 11.19.13

In September of this year, we missed an interesting article over at the The Guardian profiling the then-governor of Bastoy Prison, one of the most successful prisons in the world, located in Norway. ‘Success’ immediately raises the question of what success looks like, and we could say there are two major approaches to this term: the first, ‘success’ in terms of making inmates less likely to reoffend, and second, ‘success’ in terms of how much prisoners serve a just punishment equal to their crime.

The second seems a bit vindictive, though most people would be if they were the victims of these crimes. The strange thing is, non-victims in America often talk about the need ‘tough on crime’ and, regardless of how much most of us would want to distance ourselves from this vindictiveness, the attitudes of the US electorate have clearly said otherwise. First, the facts from The Economist, in an August 2013 article:


America has around 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of its prisoners. Roughly one in every 107 American adults is behind bars, a rate nearly five times that of Britain, seven times that of France and 24 times that of India. Its prison population has more than tripled since 1980. The growth rate has been even faster in the federal prison system: from around 24,000—its level, more or less, from the 1940s until the early 1980s—to more than 219,000 today.

Statistically, it’s difficult to ignore the high correlation between America’s harsh prison systems and its products’ comparatively high likelihood of being arrested again, which is 67% within three years out. Harsher sentences making people feel more resentment (at best) or suffer more psychological/physcial damage (at worst) and ultimately making behavior worse? Maybe it’s just me, but I think Luther could have a field day with that.

In an earlier, July 2010 articleThe Economist probed some of the impulses behind the current state of our criminal system, claiming we have “A long love affair with lock and key”:

In 1970 the proportion of Americans behind bars was below one in 400, compared with today’s one in 100. Since then, the voters, alarmed at a surge in violent crime, have demanded fiercer sentences. Politicians have obliged. New laws have removed from judges much of their discretion to set a sentence that takes full account of the circumstances of the offence. Since no politician wants to be tarred as soft on crime, such laws, mandating minimum sentences, are seldom softened. On the contrary, they tend to get harder…

Half the states have laws that lock up habitual offenders for life. In some states this applies only to violent criminals, but in others it applies even to petty ones. Some 3,700 people who committed neither violent nor serious crimes are serving life sentences under California’s “three strikes and you’re out” law. In Alabama a petty thief called Jerald Sanders was given a life term for pinching a bicycle. Alabama’s judges are elected, as are those in 32 other states. This makes them mindful of public opinion: some appear in campaign advertisements waving guns and bragging about how tough they are…


You don’t have to be a sociologist to posit a link between our love of being ‘tough on crime’ and the comparatively prominent role of Christianity in our public discourse. Of course, Christianity is not directly a religion of punishment, but in many forms it has been strongly interpreted as a religion positing each individual’s responsibility for his or her moral self-development and free choice. Economically, we want every single person to have an opportunity, and perhaps that dream is largely realized, though levels of opportunity and chances of ‘success’ can vary widely. But the American Christian corollary, that there is full freedom and an attendant responsibility for one’s own virtue, is more spurious, at least on Christianity’s own terms. A Christian view of human nature might contribute to the conversation by exposing our primal desire to be better than ‘those’ people – “I’m no murderer!” Heaping condemnation on people who have acted it out probably makes us feel superior, but God did, after all, say that “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And I’m not an ethicist, and can’t legislate on the death penalty or anything, but we can all benefit from the Bible’s psychological acumen here. The ethics of this statement could be read as secondary; primary is the exposing of our desire to be the executors of justice as our own dollop of original sin – regardless of whether or not such justice is ‘necessary’.

Justice is a necessity, for dangerous people to be in a place where they do not pose a threat to anyone (except the other inmates, more often than not), and to (hopefully) provide some sense of closure to victims. But actual renewal of life doesn’t seem to be among our justice-oriented goals, at least not in the last few decades.


To return to Norway – isn’t it annoying how people are always referencing ‘Norway’ as the progressive utopia? – and Bastoy Island, the reoffending rate is a scant 16%. This differential is of course due to more than just prison policy – education levels, mental health statistics, and socioeconomic factors probably play a part – but still the difference seems significant. None of Bastoy Island’s example is to say the US or anyone else should directly emulate it, necessarily, given our country’s distinct, non-Norwegian character; it’s more to point out that there’s probably potential somewhere for a more grace-savvy prison system to also work, that people do tend to react better to respect/rehabilitation than they do to strictly punitive measures, and that we can perhaps even observe some of (little-g, human grace’s scandal) in our reactions to Bastoy, ht SMB:

Under Nilsen’s tenure, Bastoy, home to some of the most serious offenders in Norway, has received increasing global attention both for the humane conditions under which the prisoners live – in houses rather than cells in what resembles a cosy self-sustaining village, or what the sceptics have often described as a “holiday camp” – and for its remarkably low reoffending rate of just 16% compared with around 70% for prisons across the rest of Europe and the US. Last year alone, the island, not much bigger than a breakwater in the Oslo fjord, played host to visitors from 25 international media organisations, all keen to find out the secret of Nilsen’s success…

Bastoy prison

“I run this prison like a small society,” he says as we sip tea in his cramped but tidy office. “I give respect to the prisoners who come here and they respond by respecting themselves, each other and this community.” It is this core philosophy that Nilsen, 62, believes is responsible for the success of Bastoy…

“It is not just because Bastoy is a nice place, a pretty island to serve prison time, that people change,” says Nilsen. “The staff here are very important. They are like social workers as well as prison guards. They believe in their work and know the difference they are making.”…

“I don’t think I will ever be able to do that,” says Nilsen. “If someone did very serious harm to one of my daughters or my family … I would probably want to kill them. That’s my reaction. But as a prison governor, or politician, we have to approach this in a different way. We have to respect people’s need for revenge, but not use that as a foundation for how we run our prisons. Many people here have done something stupid – they will not do it again. But prisons are also full of people who have all sorts of problems. Should I be in charge of adding more problems to the prisoner on behalf of the state, making you an even worse threat to larger society because I have treated you badly while you are in my care? We know that prison harms people. I look at this place as a place of healing, not just of your social wounds but of the wounds inflicted on you by the state in your four or five years in eight square metres of high security.”…

He believes that politicians carry a huge responsibility for the number of people in prison around Europe and the commensurately high reoffending rates. “They should deal with this by rethinking how they address the public regarding what is most effective in reducing reoffending. Losing liberty is sufficient punishment – once in custody we should focus on reducing the risk that offenders pose to society after they leave prison. For victims, there will never be a prison that is tough, or hard, enough. But they need another type of help – support to deal with the experience, rather than the government simply punishing the offender in a way that the victim rarely understands and that does very little to help heal their wounds. Politicians should be strong enough to be honest about this issue.”