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Could Victoria follow Norway’s lead on prisoner rehabilitation?

You may have heard about Norway’s prison system, famous worldwide for its almost hotel-like conditions and remarkable success in keeping criminals on the straight and narrow once they’ve done their time. Norway’s Halden Prison, for instance, has bar-free windows, dorm-style lodgings, fully equipped kitchens, Xboxes and a recording studio.

The country must be doing something right. Norway has less than 4000 people behind bars, or 74 people per 100,000 people. Australia has about 41,000 prisoners, or 217 per 100,000 people.

But there are some small signs Australia is following Norway’s example of a human rights-based approach. In 2008, the Alexander Maconochie Centre opened in the ACT, housing half its prisoners in five-bedroom cottages, and encouraging them to develop living skills.

Melbourne’s new prison focuses on rehabilitation

Now the new privately run Ravenhall Prison in Melbourne’s west is promising a new model of rehabilitation for prisoners with pre- and post-release support, plus a 75-bed mental health unit, to help identify and tackle the causes of crime.

Amid a surge in prisoner numbers across Victoria, the state government has offered the prison’s private operator, GEO, bonuses of up to $2 million a year if it reduces recidivism by 12% compared with the overall prison system. The target is 14% for indigenous prisoners. ‘The prison will place a strong emphasis on rehabilitation to help offenders break the cycle of crime,’ Minister for Corrections Gayle Tierney says.

Why Australia’s prison system is different to Norway’s

But could the new 1000-person prison ever be as successful as Norway at discouraging re-offending? The two systems have stark differences, says Dr Emma Ryan, course director for Deakin’s Bachelor of Criminology.

Dr Ryan says Norway and other Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, focus heavily on rehabilitating prisoners, rather than punishing them further.

‘Understanding that the loss of liberty is the key punishment and then supporting a person to kind of build their lives again whilst in prison is a key point of difference between our traditional models and Scandinavian models,’ she says. The prison system also exists in an entirely different culture. ‘Scandinavian communities tend to be much more homogenous, much more community based,’ Dr Ryan says.

'Understanding that the loss of liberty is the key punishment and then supporting a person to kind of build their lives again whilst in prison is a key point of difference between our traditional models and Scandinavian models.'

Dr Emma Ryan,
Deakin University

A focus on welfare

Taking a look at Norway’s successful approach from a political point of view also helps to provide an understanding behind the success of their prisoner rehabilitation system. ‘If you look at their whole political system, their approach to welfare, things like maternity and paternity leave, the way they look after disabled people, it’s a much more welfare-based political system. So welfare is high on their radar socially already which feeds down,’ Dr Ryan explains.

However that may change as Scandinavia experiences waves of immigration – something that is old news for Australia. ‘Part of the way in which the prison literature ties into immigration is that lots of people of colour and immigrants, refugees tend to end up in the prison system,’ Dr Ryan says. Victoria, for example, has large numbers of Vietnamese prisoners.

Marketing spin or a brave new model?

Dr Ryan says GEO’s promises sound good in theory, but whether or not they’ll come to fruition remains to be seen. ‘I think we need to have a look at what the evaluation data says in two or three years’ time, before we could really draw conclusions. But we’d then have to rely on the fact that some quality evaluation had been done, which again, costs a whole lot of money.’

She says if governments really want to prevent people turning to crime in the first place, they should be pouring money into the ‘front end’ of intervention. That could include keeping unemployment rates low and providing access to appropriate education and funding initiatives, such as safe injecting rooms.

Dr Ryan also has reservations about the privatisation of prisons. ‘I don’t want to be too deeply cynical but the pattern is that private prisons, they need a supply of customers to make a profit for their shareholders, so keeping people out of prison is not in their interests.’

Interested learning more about the world of crime and criminals? Take a look at Deakin’s range of courses in Criminology

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Dr Emma Ryan
Dr Emma Ryan

Teaching Scholar in Criminology, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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