How to reduce violence in our prisons


As presently organised, our prisons are violent places, but it doesn’t have to be that way. One country with an enlightened prison policy is Norway, which has much less prison violence and a lower reoffending or recidivism rate.

In Norway the answer is not more guards, but

treating prisoners with respect

and giving them a lifestyle

similar to that outside the wall

. Prisoners live in civilized group accommodation, purchasing and cooking their own food and moving around in relative freedom. They have access to computers, classes, a variety of work opportunities, and pretty much all the normal things of life.

The guards are more like social workers whose role includes trying to

“understand how they came to be criminals and then help them to change.”

The guards

“socialize with the inmates every day, often over tea, coffee and meals.”

Being a prison guard is high status. One guard

told journalist Erwin James

that her family were “very proud” of her: “It takes three years to train to be a prison guard in Norway. She looks at me in disbelief when I tell her that in the UK prison officer training is just six weeks.”

As Bastoy prison governor Arne Nilsen puts it

, “the [only] punishment [for a prisoner] is that you lose your freedom.” Everything else is geared to helping them and facilitating rehabilitation. “If we treat people like animals when they are in prison,” says Nilsen, “they are likely to behave like animals. Here were pay attention to you as human beings.”

Although prison practices have improved in New Zealand there is still too much regimentation and too little attention to the individual needs of prisoners. It is no accident that prisoners often resort to violence. Commonly, it is to get respect, especially from other prisoners. Norwegian inmates don’t need to use their fists to get respect: the prison environment is already structured to provide it.

Norwegian prisoners from a violent background are probably in a less violent situation inside the prison than they were outside. The opposite is often true in New Zealand jails, where there are benefits for being on side with most physically powerful prisoners, or groups of prisoners – and a code of silence is strictly enforced.

Retribution for narking is the main reason that authorities could get no “hard evidence” of the Mt Eden prison “Fight Clubs” before the recent videos appeared. My information is that every Mt Eden inmate knew about it – gossip is the main currency in prisons – but that the authorities turned a blind eye.