Incarceration Within American and Nordic Prisons: Comparison of National and International Policies

Katie Ward, Amy J. Longaker, Jessica Williams, Amber Naylor, Chad A Rose, and Cynthia G. Simpson


Prison systems throughout the world exist to enforce societal rules, maintain the safety of the general population, provide punitive sentences to offenders, and rehabilitate prisoners. While the goals of global prison systems are relatively common, the United States incarcerates more citizens per capita when compared to other European countries. In addition to the high incarceration rate, the U.S. also maintains a relatively high rate of recidivism, suggesting the U.S. prison system does not effectively rehabilitate American prisoners. Therefore, it is critical to explore the successful components of other European prison systems in order to establish stronger and more effective programs in the U.S.. The present manuscript compares the general prison functioning of the U.S. prison system to Nordic prison systems. Given this comparison, Nordic prison systems appear to do a more efficient job at reducing recidivism, providing educational services, and rehabilitating prisoners. Therefore, U.S. policymakers should consider viable options for alternative services and punitive approaches for American offenders.

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than most western European countries and Canada (Mauer, 2003), and many of those imprisoned within the U.S. will be released and rearrested within three years (Langan & Levin, 2002). While research has indicated that some prisons and programs are successful at educating and rehabilitating inmates to reduce recidivism, the majority of prisons exist to protect the public and punish the offender (French & Gendreau, 2006; Langan & Levin, 2002). Although protecting the general public should be the primary function of prison systems, increased attention should be placed on educating and rehabilitating inmates to prevent cyclic nature of offence, arrest, release, and repeat.

Many prisons in the U.S. are privately operated on behalf of the public by such conglomerates as the Corrections Corporations of America and The GEO Group (Gran & Henry, 2008). While these entities exist to serve the primary function of the prison system, these companies are for profit, and are compensated for rehabilitation success. In fact, the more incarcerates who remain in the system, the more lucrative the enterprise becomes. Consequently, rehabilitation and educational services do not generally factor in to the bottom line of these corporations when compared to construction fees, management salaries, and employee wages (Gran & Henry, 2008).

In general, the U.S. prison system is often unsuccessful at rehabilitating inmates based on the high rates of recidivism (Langan & Levin, 2002). Major impediments to rehabilitation within the U.S. prison system includes the lack of drug rehabilitation programs, overall lack of funding for rehabilitation programs, and mandatory sentencing laws for certain crimes which may force some into prisons who then learn criminal behavior from their peers while incarcerated (Mauer, 2011). The purpose of this review is to discuss and compare the success and methods of prisons in the U.S. and abroad to rehabilitate inmates while applying general behavioral principles.

Predictors for Escalated Incarceration Rates in the U.S.

Research has demonstrated that the prison system functions, in many ways, as a receptacle for groups facing systematic challenges such as failed or inadequate educational opportunities, unemployment, reliance upon public assistance, and involvement in criminal activity (Austin, Bruce, Carroll, McCall, & Richards, 2001). High school dropouts represent the majority demographic among those on public assistance and/or incarcerated (Stanard, 2003). Dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, dependent upon public assistance, earn less in the workforce, and end up in the legal system. (Stanard, 2003). In fact, early school failure and inadequate schooling (e.g., ineffective teaching methods, problematic disciplinary practices, lack of educational resources, lack of parental involvement) serves as a predictor of increased dropout rates (Christie, Jolivette, & Nelson, 2005).

A series of studies have focused on behavioral patterns and disciplinary actions taken toward students who eventually drop out of school and become entrenched in the legal system. This body of literature suggests that students who consistently violate school rules are more likely to be punished, and as these individuals progress in age, the rule violations often increase in frequency and severity, which results in a steady escalation in the applied sanctions (Casella, 2001; Christle et al., 2005; Gottfredson, 2001). This escalation in sanctions can lead to negative labels and exclusions from peer groups, which can create a self-fulfilling prophecy and result in a cycle of antisocial behavior that can be difficult to break (Casella, 2001; Gottfredson, 2001). Therefore, this cycle of punishment, which often begins at school, could lead to a cycle of illegal activities, arrests, and incarceration.


In addition to educational predictors, the privatization of U.S. prisons may impede the rehabilitation and education of the nation’s prisoners. Fundamentally, private prisons are often quite profitable for investors, while creating jobs and stimulating local economies. As such, the political will to finance prisons is not driven by altruistic sentiment to rehabilitate (Coyle, 2003). Meanwhile, the U.S. prison population is rising over two million with expenditures that eclipse $35 billion annually, resulting in both prison expansion and new prison construction (Coyle, 2003). In addition to the cost associated with prison expansion, increased expenditures are necessary for the supervision of prisoners and, ideally, the implementation of rehabilitative programs both within and outside of the prison walls (Coyle, 2003). While programs within the prison itself are necessary, external rehabilitative programs help reduce recidivism, which requires ongoing expenditures for the supervision of released offenders (Coyle, 2003). However, the initial link to reduce recidivism may be entrenched within the educational system.

Examination of National and International Policies

The U.S. penal system is often portrayed among the American populace as being tough on crime. To the rest of the western world, the penal system in the United States is viewed as a broken system, where the U.S. policy of mass incarceration is the epitome of ineffective practice (Mallory, 2006). While this is a tough critique, the American incarceration rate is the highest in the world at over 714 per 100,000 U.S. citizens (Walmsley, 2008). This rate is strikingly higher than that of other southern and western European countries, whose average incarceration rate is only 95 per 100,000 citizens (Stern, 2002; Walmsley, 2008). America’s higher rate of incarceration might be acceptable if it resulted in a safer society. However, it can be argued that the escalated rates of incarceration do not increase societal safety based on the consistently high rates of overall crimes, violent crimes, and recidivism rate. Consequently, one could reasonably conclude that the United States’ political agenda for increasing punishment to decrease crime yields an ineffective result. Therefore, in the current form, the U.S. prison system inadequately deters crimes and is ineffective at rehabilitating offenders. Ironically, the U.S. penal system inadvertently encourages antisocial behavior (Mallory, 2006).

In contrast, when examining crime rates, the percent of population that is imprisoned, and the recidivism rate in Nordic countries, the statistics demonstrate that Nordic penal systems are more successful at deterring future criminal activity when compared to the U.S. (Walmsley, 2008). The Nordic approach to punishment, the setup of their prisons, and the public perception of the purpose of the penal system are fundamentally different than the US. For example, when Norway implemented the prison model used in Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, the prison population dropped from 200 per 100,000 people in 1950 to 65 per 100,000 people in 2004 (Von Hofer, 2007). Similarly, an experimental Dutch prison was created to minimize costs and increase inmate success following release, where inmate rights are of paramount concern and the ultimate goal is to teach offenders that their choices have consequences, both good and bad (Kenis, Kruyen, Baaijens, & Barneveld, 2010). Though each Nordic country’s (i.e., Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark) laws and prison policies vary slightly, as a whole the Nordic penal system deviates from that of other countries with higher rates of incarceration and recidivism, resulting in more favorable outcomes for the rehabilitation and education of offenders.

Nordic Prison Overview

Conceivably, many Americans conceptualize their global understanding of prison through their beliefs, experiences, and media portrayal of the national legal system. Consequently, it may be difficult to conceive of a prison system that does not rely almost exclusively on punitive measures, but rather attends to the rights and rehabilitation of inmates. In contrast to the American Prison System, the framework of the Nordic Prison System serves to rehabilitate inmates to directly address recidivism (Pratt, 2008). For example, while the largest Nordic prison houses approximately 350 inmates, the majority of these prisons are relatively small and house around 100 inmates (Pratt, 2008). The philosophy behind the limited prison size is to maintain several active prisons in many different parts of the country, allowing prisoners to reside in closer proximity to their family and home environment (Pratt, 2008). Consequently, Nordic prisoners can maintain their roots in their communities and family bonds, while receiving rehabilitation services within the prison walls.

Nordic prison facilities. Nordic prisons typically fall under one of two categories: open prisons and closed prisons. These categories are generally stepwise in restrictiveness, where the typical inmate will first go to a closed, more restrictive, prison where they will serve the majority of their sentence (Baer & Ravneberg, 2008; Pratt, 2008). Toward the end of the prison sentence, the inmate will be transferred to an open prison, that serves as the foundation for inmate rehabilitation; allowing the offenders more freedoms, more relaxed surroundings, fewer security measures, and more programs aimed at societal reintegration (Baer & Ravneberg, 2008; Pratt, 2008). For example, in one Dutch open prison, creative cost-cutting measures led to increased socializing behavior by housing six inmates in a spacious cell, that includes typical daily amenities, designed to promote positive social interactions and independence (Kenis et al., 2010). The traditional Nordic cell, however, is located on a wing off of the prison’s main corridor, where each wing has a central common room that contains a television and a small kitchen (Pratt, 2008).

In addition to the cell accommodations, barriers such as fences and walls are eliminated when possible (Pratt, 2008). While closed prisons maintain tight perimeters and security checks, most open prisons allow offenders to freely roam the grounds, lock their own doors, and earn in town privileges (Pratt, 2008). Given this level of freedom, many open prisons utilize technology as a means for accounting for and tracking the location of their prisoners (Kenis et al., 2010). Consequently, this level of surveillance has produced both a safer environment and increases in socializing behaviors as offenders seek to maximize the reinforcement for acceptable behavior (Kenis et al., 2010). Overall, the goal of open prisons is to shorten the physical and social distance between prison and the outside world; however, the prisons also employ strict procedures, surveillance, mandatory chores, deprivations, and sanctions that the general public does not endure (Pratt, 2008).

Nordic prison staff. Attitudes of staff, especially prison guards, are thought to directly influence the success of correctional rehabilitation programs and the successful reintegration of prisoners after their release (Kjelsberg, Skoglund, & Rustad, 2007). The make up of prison guards within a prison is carefully analyzed to maximize the success of the inmates, where prisons employ guards who vary in gender, age, and level of education (Pratt, 2008). Interestingly, working as a prison guard is a desirable vocation, which is very competitive and selective in Nordic countries (Pratt, 2008). Training includes two years of mentoring prior to independent supervision of inmates, where trainees establish an understanding of punitive policies, political influences, and public perception that serves as the foundation for the connection between the structure of the system and reform (Pratt, 2008).

Punitive Policies, Political Influences, and Public Perception

Some of our most important contributions to understanding the functionality prison systems stemmed from ethnographic methods (Austin & Irwin, 2001; Irwin, 1970/1987, 1980, 1985; Jacobs, 1977; Owen, 1998; Richards, 1990, 1995; Sykes 1956, 1958; Sykes & Messinger, 1960). Over the past few decades, a number of studies have questioned the utility of incarceration as an effective means of reducing crime rates. For example, Blumstein, Cohen, and Nagin (1978) and Blumstein, Cohen, Roth, and Visher (1986) concluded that there is no systematic evidence suggesting general incapacitation and selective incapacitation has had or could have a major impact on crime rates. Similarly, Sherman and colleagues (1998), suggested that while the incarceration of persons who will continue to commit crimes would reduce crime rates, “the number of crimes prevented by locking up each additional offender declines with diminishing returns as less active and less serious offenders are incarcerated (p. 8).”

American policies. At the present time, American prison reform efforts face major challenges due to the changing political landscape, public perception of the penal system, and the continuing national recession. Specifically, living conditions within the prisons are often viewed as an additional means of punishment (Mauer, 2011). Warden Norton, a character in The Shawshank Redemption (Marvin & Darabont, 1994) gives one of the most famous, albeit fictional, accounts of prisons in American culture, “[as] [f]ar as [politicians] are concerned, there’s only three ways to spend the taxpayer’s hard-earned money when it come to prisons. More walls. More bars. More guards.” A high prison population has been one of many constraints toward establishing effective rehabilitative programs, especially in the face of limited budgets and the increasing recession.

Conceivably, prisons may also create a space for criminal networking that may further facilitate criminal activity. Linsky and Strauss (1986) found that states with the highest incarceration rates maintained the highest crime rates. Specifically, some attribute the increase in criminal activity to a lack of prison supervision (LaGrange & Silverman, 1999), or exposure to misbehavior (Longshore & Turner, 1998). Given the high rates of incarceration in the U.S., and the predictive factors associated with the cyclic nature of incarceration and recidivism, penal system reform must start to emerge as a legislative priority.

International policies. In Scandinavia, it is believed that the prison conditions should parallel real-world conditions as closely as possible (Pratt, 2008). The Finnish Department of Prison and Probation (2004) has suggested that punishment is not the elimination of basic needs; it is simply the loss of liberty, demonstrating that the Finnish believe in “gentle justice” which focuses on decreased recidivism through rehabilitation of prisoners (Ekunwe, Jones, & Mullin, 2010). Similarly, policy statements in the Netherlands are aimed at the resocialization and reintegration of inmates (Schinkel, 2003). Overall, Nordic offenders are not stripped of their basic rights; their independence is restricted while they receive rehabilitation services to deter future criminal activity (Von Hofer & Marvin, 2001).

Education Programs

America. Fundamentally, there is an inverse relationship between rates of recidivism and level of education, where the higher the level of education, the less likely the person is to be rearrested or imprisoned (Coylewright, 2004). For example, Coylewright (2004) suggested that:

Every dollar spent on education yields more than two dollars in savings from avoiding reincarceration alone. This is significant in an era of state budget pressures when our national (state and federal) corrections budget consumes more than $50 billion a year (p. 403).

Yet, the mere implementation of these programs has been a challenge. According to Coylewright (2004), only 33% of offenders receive educational training prior to release. However, critics suggest that only specific components or domains of education assist in reducing recidivism. For example, Adams and colleagues (1994) found that education within the prison is only effective at reducing recidivism when the prison population has very little education to begin with, and when this population receives at least 200 hours of educational services.

International. In direct contrast to American prison systems, education is a high priority within the Nordic prison system and is considered to be a right of the incarcerated individual. Education is provided to the extent that the offender wishes to participate, and guards are taught to encourage them to further their education. Prisoners have the option of attending school full time, and the prisons offer all levels of education including university degrees, which can be accessed via distance education (Pratt, 2008).

Occupational Programs

American occupational programs. Occupational programs in the United States seek to develop offenders’ vocational skills in order to ensure their reintegration into society as working and productive members. Like educational programs, occupational programs also suffer from budgetary cutbacks and restraints associated with an increase in recidivism for participating offenders (Petersilia, 1999). America’s overall decrease in the recidivism rate may be due to some vocational programs requiring a diploma or GED to participate, thus making it difficult to determine the extent to which vocational training was responsible for the recidivism decrease (Lawrence, 2004). This education criterion excludes a large portion of offenders from participating in the program. By the same token, occupational programs may be effectively implemented but prove fruitless because of little support finding employment once released from prison (Lawrence, 2004). More specifically, there needs to be consistent treatment and a support network for offenders both inside and outside of the prison walls, especially in vocational programs.

International occupational programs. Fundamentally, the success of the Nordic model is contingent upon the country’s ability to secure potential employers. For example, the Danish welfare state has effectively embedded policies that keep their prison model functional within the surrounding community (Lacey, 2010). This program includes helping offenders locate and secure jobs within the public sector that will maintain them following their release. Consequently, these work programs are instituted for individuals who have demonstrated the ability to engage in gainful employment, while maintaining socially appropriate behaviors.

In Finland, eligible inmates are sent to “labor camps” where they are compensated with a normal wage for completed work. In turn, these earnings are used for them to pay for their own expenses; including rent, utilities, food, and taxes. Additionally, these eligible individuals are able to save money and provide for their families, or in some cases, send financial compensation to the families of their victims (Kenis et al., 2010; Pratt, 2008). For example, Bastoy Prison, which is the model open prison in Norway, attempts to foster a sense of responsibility among the inmates by providing employment opportunities based on documented behavioral patterns and the development of trusting relationships between the inmate and prison administration (Pratt, 2008).

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Programs

American mental health and substance abuse programs. The criminal justice system has a duty to care for prisoners with physical disabilities; however, some argue that treatment of psychological illnesses and drug addictions are not the responsibility of the system (Estelle v. Gamble, 1976). However, the number of rehabilitative programs is disproportionate to the number of inmates (Mumola, 1999; Mumola & Karberg, 2007), where between 70-85% of those incarcerated are in need of alcohol or substance abuse treatment, and only 13% of these inmates ever receive treatment (McCaffrey, 1998). While most states reported having Therapeutic Communities (TC) or federally funded Residential Substance Abuse Treatment centers, these programs are unable to service many prisoners with substance abuse histories due to size limitations (Austin & Irwin, 2001). Similarly, effective psychotherapy is essentially nonexistent for individual prisoners, because group therapy is the most prevalent in the prison setting (Coylewright, 2004). Consequently, group therapy is often ineffective due to the fear of being perceived as weak by revealing too much personal information, or for being too cooperative with the prison administrators (Coylewright, 2004). Therefore, effective reform requires a reassessment of the legal system’s duty to provide psychological and substance abuse treatment.

International mental health and substance abuse programs. One common thread between American and Nordic prison systems is that the majority of offenders are commonly substance abusers prior to incarceration (Friestad & Hansen, 2004; Mumola & Karberg, 2007). However, the Nordic prison systems offer substance abuse and mental health counseling to their inmates. For example, in the Netherlands, all healthcare, including mental health, is viewed as a right for all individuals, including prisoners (Bulten, Vissers, & Oei, 2008). According to Lobmaier, Kornor, Kunoe, and Bjorndal (2008), the most effective way to get a prisoner to accept treatment was through rapport development and the urging of a trusted staff member. Unfortunately, when an offender with drug dependency is released, it is reported that as many as 90% of them return to drugs (Butzin, Martin, & Inciardi, 2005).

Behavioral Programs

American behavioral programs. Community-based behavioral programs have traditionally focused on providing intensive behavioral support through services and community involvement, where programs’ structures and service provisions are guided by research on social learning conceptualizations of criminal behavior (Gendreau, 1996). Gendreau (1996) explains that these programs incorporate theory, empirical data, and practice to create a space for the inmates’ behavioral growth and development. Based on the responsivity principle, these programs last a few months and apply behavioral approaches toward rehabilitating high-risk offenders, with a concrete aim of developing interpersonal skills. Therapists train and supervise the offenders in real-life, interpersonal and constructive projects, where contingencies are enforced by weighting reinforcers and punishers at a rate of at least 4 to 1. According to Gendreau and Ross (1981), reductions in recidivism routinely ranged from 25% to 60%, with the greatest reductions found for community-based programs.

International behavioral programs. In contrast to the typical U.S. model, the Dutch DCL prison uses a systematic behavioral system to ensure that desired behaviors are reinforced and undesired behaviors are either punished or extinguished. For example, prisoners plan their own schedules and are given choices regarding their preferred activities, where these choices serve as reinforcers and lead to increased independence (Kenis et al., 2010). In addition to choice activities, prisoners can earn monetary compensation for appropriate behaviors, which can earn increased privileges and access to social activities (e.g., television, phone calls, visiting hours, different accommodations; Kenis et al., 2010). Overall, policymakers selected this model to increase inmates’ behavioral responsibilities, and this model was more cost effective for inmates who were incarcerated for more than four months (Kenis et al., 2010).


The current view on the treatment of prisoners in the United States is that an increase in punishment yields a decrease in crime rates (French & Gendreau, 2006; Langan & Levin 2002). In reality, the U.S. crime and recidivism rate is higher than that of any other country (Langan & Levin, 2002; Mauer, 2003). Considering the relationship between individuals who are undereducated and incarcerated (Stanard, 2003), there seems to be an obvious need to reform the current education system. In contrast, other countries have models for prison systems that seem to be more effective at reducing recidivism and crime; most notably, Nordic prisons employ a philosophy of rehabilitation to decrease recidivism (Kjelsberg, et al., 2007). Consequently, the United States may possibly benefit from a decrease in recidivism by widely adopting features from the Nordic prison systems.


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About the Authors

Katie A. Ward, M.S.Ed, BCBA, is a recent graduate of Sam Houston State University and Baylor University. She is currently Coordinator of Special Education Services for the Brazosport Independent School District.

Amy J. Longaker, M. Ed., BCBA, is a recent graduate of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX. She is currently a Behavior Analyst for Aldine Independent School District.

Jessica L. Williams, M.S.Ed, is a recent graduate of the Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX. She is currently a special education teacher in the Spring Independent School.

Amber Naylor, M.Ed, BCBA, is a recent graduate of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX. She is currently a Board Certified Behavior Analyst at MHMRA of Harris County’s ECI Program.

Chad A. Rose, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Special Education in the Department of Language, Literacy and Special Populations at Sam Houston State University. His research focuses on the predictive and protective factors associated with the overrepresentation of students with disabilities within the bullying dynamic.

Cynthia G. Simpson, Ph.D., is the Dean of the School of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Houston Baptist University. Her research focuses on linking assessment to instruction within an inclusive classroom and gender discrepancies within the bullying dynamic.