Unlock the Pathway to Humanity: Restructuring the Infrastructure of Prisons


Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mirella B

Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of the classic novel “Crime and Punishment,” once said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If only he could unlock the mystery to our faulty prison system.

Now, let’s take a walk into American prisons as an incoming inmate. You walk through two heavily armed barbed wire gates and down the path through the door. It slams behind you. You are led through the prison to an overly cold room where you change into a bright orange jumpsuit and stand idle with a few others. You are transferred to the place you will be serving your time for the rest of your sentence. Some of your fellow inmates are transferred into overcrowded cells but you are sent alone to a dingy small room with a metal bed, toilet, sink, and small table. While in the room, there is no human contact and nothing to do for the 23 hours you spend in the cell daily. How will someone spending years in this place be able to easily rejoin the greater community and what does this say about our society?

Up until the mid-1970s, American prison’s goal was to “resolve psychological problems” and “develop occupational skills,” according to The American Psychological Association. Since then, American incarceration rates have continued to dramatically increase. One would hope that with an increase in incarceration rates, crime would decrease. However, according to a study conducted in 2015 by students at NYU Law, the increased incarceration rate has a negligible effect on crime; whereas, effective policing along with socioeconomic factors, has aided in decreasing crime rates.

Of the 2.3 million American prisoners, 80,000 to 100,000 are in forced solitary confinement for 23 hours of the day. Why is America’s incarceration rate so high? The fact is that more people are being imprisoned instead of being placed in therapy or treated for mental illnesses. But in German and Norwegian prisons, inmates are in the opposite dynamic. Consequently, the success in rehabilitation is impressive as they are identified by more than just orange jumpsuits and are treated with humanity. For instance, they are allowed to wear their own clothing. This is in part due to the prison’s central goal: to rehabilitate their inmates so that they can become “good neighbors” after their release.

Let’s talk a closer look at how Germany’s society allows their prisons to be humane. Article 1 of Germany’s constitution states “(1) The dignity of man shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. (2) The German people, therefore, acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every human community, of peace and of justice in the world. (3) The following basic rights shall be binding as directly valid law on legislation, administration and judiciary.” By stating that the “dignity of man shall be inviolable” and “inalienable human rights as the basis of every human community”, they are preventing the humanitarian issues with the Nazi death camps and making sure their prisons are safe and humane to all inmates. Not only are these prisons safe and humane, but for the most part, the prisoners don’t return and are able to live a normal life after incarceration.

In America, the idea of settling into normal life after incarceration is mostly frowned upon. America sees prisoners as violent criminals whereas Norway’s system views inmates as people who made a mistake and need to think through their mistake to prevent further incidents. Norway’s Prison General describes this ideology as “If you treat an inmate like an animal, he’d be an animal. If you treat him with respect he’d respect you back. He’s a human being, treat him like… [one]”. America’s ill-treatment of prisoners is deeply rooted in our system; inmates are treated worse than we treat animals. Yes, the person needs to learn from their mistakes, but locking them up in a cage isn’t going to help them; they are still humans and deserve to be treated as such. Norway’s approach results in a humane prison where the prisoners feel connected to society and have an easier time integrating after their release.

Being released into the real world after being incarcerated for even a year is a difficult task. After being released, there are decisions to be made, and no one to help them. Being released from solitary confinement is the worst, because they have to learn how to communicate effectively and make beneficial decisions. In an ABC news report, a Rikers inmate described his experience. “‘I have a lot of years in solitary confinement’ … Rafel … has been locked a year and a half straight in solitary, which prisoners call the box. … ‘I’ve been more in prison than on the streets recently when I went to the streets. I feel like I was in jail. I’m so institutionalized, brainwashed, call it what you want to call it.’ He said he’s changed forever. ‘In here I feel confident in myself because I’m safe from myself. I’m saving others. I can’t function in society.” In the same video, Ponte, a member of the NYC Department of correction, advocates for removal of solitary confinement for younger prisoners and created a unit where “even violent inmates” are able to be out of there cells for seven hours a day and receive treatment. This is a lot better than one hour, but it still needs some work. Being able to walk around should not be a privilege, it should be a right.

This is one of the reasons that many inmates in America have spent most of their lives circulating in and out of jail. In Germany and Norway’s humane prisons, the inmates not only have human contact and make decisions themselves, but can also acquire new skills, receive higher levels of education, and rehabilitation. This ultimately allows them to adjust to the outside world in a more healthy way where they still have a chance to be successful by overcoming their previous anger and drug abuse, moving on with their lives, and developing relationships with other inmates and staff.

Another differentiator that cannot be overlooked is the long term effects of prisoner treatment in America. Criminal records last indefinitely whereas, in Norway and Germany the records are expunged after three to seven years. This immense distinction, until recently in some states, excluded criminals from voting. Further, a criminal record can inhibit job prospects and housing options, all of which can lead to a downward spiral leading towards reprehensible actions.

Overall, adjusting the criminal justice system to encourage rehabilitation correlates to less crime, benefiting not only the inmates but society as a whole. Inmates are not necessarily inherently violent criminals; most have mental health disorders or have been subjected to abuse or neglect. By going through rehabilitation, the majority will normalize. As a Norwegian prisoner put it, “before I think more like a criminal but now I start to think more like a normal guy” (Sunday Today). If America truly wants fewer incarcerated individuals, they need to take notes on the success of other countries’ prison infrastructure. Society brandishing inmates for their wrongdoing only creates deep-seated anger and the potential for them to act out and harm themselves or others. To avoid repeat offenders, it should be society’s mission to provide inmates with the proper care and humanity that they deserve.