New York’s Jails Are Failing. Is the Answer 3,600 Miles Away? – The New York Times

ULLENSAKER, Norway — From the outside, Romerike Prison looks like many correctional facilities in the United States: barbed-wire fences, guard stations and inmate cells scattered across acres of land.

But inside is a different story.

Hard plastic windows allow prisoners to look outside. Contemporary artwork lines the hallways. And when prisoners are released — almost all of them will eventually be freed — a warden gives them his personal cellphone number. Call if you need help, he tells them.

In nearly every measurable way, the Norwegian correctional system is a radical departure from cold, harsh American prisons and jails. Yet those stark differences were exactly what led officials in New York City to travel recently to Norway.

For the first time in a century, the city is embarking on an ambitious plan to rebuild its jails, the second largest correctional system in the United States.

By 2026, four new jails in neighborhoods across New York have been proposed to replace those at Rikers Island, the notorious jail complex plagued by abuse and neglect that has come to symbolize a criminal justice system that ensnares black and Hispanic people in disproportionate numbers.

With the new jails, city officials want to reimagine not only physical features but also how they operate on the inside, creating an opportunity for New York City, supporters say, to become a national model of more humane incarceration.

“All of us feel, not just within the city but across the justice system, that we’re really at this kind of transformational moment,” said Elizabeth Glazer, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the city agency helping lead the project. “That sounds quite grandiose, but it feels very real.”

The City Council approved the $8 billion jails plan in October, but essential questions remain. What should modern jails look like? How should they fit into neighborhoods? What is the role of a correction officer?

In recent months, city officials have set out to find answers, touring facilities across the United States and in Europe. In late September, they touched down in a place far different from New York: Norway, a welfare state with a low crime rate whose population is fairly homogeneous and smaller than New York’s.

New York and Norway also have other significant differences that raise questions about how the country’s practices can be applied in a large urban setting. The city’s new jails will be in the middle of densely populated neighborhoods, while most facilities in Norway are in rural settings. In 2018, Norway had 26 homicides — about how many New York City averages every month.

Most notably, Norway has a broad social safety net, including generous education benefits and pensions, which helps prisoners both while in prison and after their release. Inmates receive a daily allowance of about $7.60, which they can save or spend at the commissary.

Still, its incarceration system has become a model worldwide.

One stop was Halden Prison, tucked among birch and pine trees about an hour’s drive south of Oslo. It has about 200 inmates, roughly half of whom were convicted of violent crimes, including murder, rape and assault.

Inside the perimeter of 25-foot-tall smooth concrete barriers, inmates can wear their own clothing and have some freedom to move around the grounds alone. It is eerily quiet — no sounds of slamming metal doors or dangling key chains or shouting inmates and officers.

It is often considered the world’s most humane maximum-security prison.

“Halden is in this extraordinarily beautiful, rural setting, and that’s obviously not New York City,” said Ms. Glazer, who toured the property with one of the prison’s architects. “But there are elements of what’s in Halden that you can find anywhere: the openness of light, the effect of air coming through.”

Later in the weeklong visit, the team, which also included criminal justice advocates, visited Romerike, a high-security prison about 65 miles north of Halden in a town of about 39,000 people.

Tunnels connect prison cells to a cafeteria and a recreation area, allowing inmates to move without officers by their sides. Inmates can decorate their cells with personal items.

There are workshops with wood milling machines, a gym, a stocked kitchen for cooking classes and a library.

Perhaps the most startling difference, though, is the relationship between officers and inmates.

Every officer is assigned to about five or six inmates, compared with about 50 prisoners for every officer in New York. In Norway, officers socialize with them over meals and prepare them for life after their release. In fact, when inmates leave they must have a place to live and be enrolled in school or have found a job.

That connection, one Romerike guard told the group from New York, made them “kind of friends” — a remark that startled some visitors.

In an interview, Leif Arne Rosand, a warden at Romerike, said the officer’s comment had been lost in translation, but acknowledged that the way guards open up to inmates might seem unusual to Americans.

It is called “dynamic security,” a theory that interpersonal relationships among officers and inmates help promote safety. Mr. Rosand offered an example: “If you’re in dialogue with a group where the role of being a father is discussed, you need to tell them you are a father, too,” he said.

During a walk through the prison yard, Mr. Rosand came across one of Romerike’s better-known inmates. He had been convicted of drug-related charges and spent time in a prison in Lithuania. Prison officials asked that his name be withheld because he had not given consent to an interview.

“I am dead tired of being here,” the man told Mr. Rosand, laughing. But he added that the prison was much nicer than the one in Lithuania, which he described with a profanity and added, “Six men per cell and rats.”

Brenda Cooke, the chief of staff at New York City’s Department of Corrections who also traveled to Norway, said officers in New York already got to know inmates, though on a limited basis.

“The difference was that connection between the relationship of understanding the person who was with us in custody and then how you can support, direct help and shape their opportunity once they’re released,” Ms. Cooke said.

Jarrod Shanahan, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Governors State University outside Chicago who has written extensively about Rikers, said he had little faith in correction officers and administrators being capable of change.

“They can try to implement whatever design and management plan they please, but it will be futile in the face of the immense political power wielded by the city’s jail guards and police,” Dr. Shanahan said. “These entities, backed by powerful unions, simply disregard civilian command and do as they wish in their dealings with working-class communities of color.”

Elias Husamudeen, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, the union that represents nearly all of the city’s 11,000 jail officers and that opposed the closing of Rikers, said city officials did not need to travel to Norway to learn how officers could help inmates.

“I’ve been doing this for 31 years and there are inmates I see on the street who were in my custody, and I ask, ‘How are you doing? Are you staying out of trouble?’” said Mr. Husamudeen, illustrating the rapport he had established with prisoners.

Still, in the United States, which imprisons more people than any other country, some of Norway’s methods have been adopted by Oregon and North Dakota.

Officials in those states, as well as those from New York City, traveled to Norway with a group called Amend, a program at the University of California, San Francisco, that works to improve prison culture and the health of inmates and employees.

“When people come with us, they see that there is a different way,” said Brie Williams, Amend’s director and a professor of medicine at the university. “Treating people with respect and dignity and humanity is key to making things safer and the lives of people incarcerated more meaningful.”

Yet there are fundamental differences between Norway and the United States. America has a history of mass incarceration and stiff punishments, while the longest sentence in Norway for most crimes is 21 years. (The far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in a 2011 attack, was sentenced to 21 years, though his sentence can be extended by five-year increments for the rest of his life.)

In New York, the city tracks the use of force by officers on inmates and how often released inmates end up back in custody.

Ms. Glazer of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said that when she asked Norway correction officials for that kind of data, they said they either did not keep track or did not know; they also did not know how much it costs to run the country’s prisons. (Mr. Rosand, the warden, says Romerike averages about three or four use-of-force incidents per week, though the vast majority do not involve a weapon; New York City averages about 18 per day.)

Norwegian officials have explained their approach as the honorable way to treat people, arguing that anything less would reflect poorly on the country.

“It is a social welfare state, so there is a level of resources applied, whether you’re in or out, that’s just different from here,” Ms. Glazer. “Those big investments, obviously, are beyond our scope.”

Now that the City Council has approved the jails plan, the city is expected to work with architects, designers and construction firms to incorporate the best design aspects they have studied.

“We have an opportunity here to really push the industry to bring us creativity,” Ms. Cooke said. “We’re building these facilities not for today or tomorrow but for 50 years from now.”

Henrik Pryser Libell reported from Ullensaker and Oslo, and Matthew Haag from New York.