What Happens in Norway, Shouldn’t Stay in Norway

The “Norway model” has become a buzzword in the corrections industry. For some, the term refers to a fairytale land where prisoners stay in hotels and live like rockstars. For others, it means a radically different paradigm in corrections—one that emphasizes officer impact and resident transformation over punishment.  

Count me a member of that second group, especially after a visit to Norway’s penal system in August 2023. I was grateful for the opportunity to join a tour hosted by One Voice United, since I was anxious to see for myself a system that has been conceived from the ground up as a place to transform a person so they can safely and productively return to society.  

What Norway is doing works, and as a 30-year veteran of the U.S. penal system I can tell you without a doubt that the U.S. system does not. Not that you need my experience to see this. Harvard Political Review pulled together the key stats in an article last year: 

  • As the world leader in incarceration, the U.S. locks up more people per capita than any other nation. By the end of 2020, there were more than 1.8 million incarcerated Americans. 
  • Each year, more than 600,000 individuals are released from state and federal prisons. Another nine million are released from local jails. Within three years of their release, two out of three former prisoners are rearrested and more than 50% are incarcerated again.  

I’m not a theorist—I’m an operations guy. Still, I emerged from my tenure as an officer, a warden, and a system security director with a deeply pragmatic approach to incarceration: stop doing what doesn’t work and do what does work.   

That’s exactly what Norway did. In the eighties and nineties, the Scandinavian nation’s penal system was in crisis. Incarceration and recidivism rates were sky-high, violence and corruption in prisons were out of hand. After some high-profile escapes and other terrible news out of prisons, political pressure grew in the late 1990s for the system to change. Some scholars wrote a white paper suggesting a new approach to corrections. Over several years, their suggestions were embraced, tested, and deployed, leading to a culture change in the Norwegian incarceration system.  

The Proof is in the Numbers 

The results are striking. Today, this nation with a population of around 5.4 million has about 3,000 incarcerated, or an incarceration rate of 54 per 100,000 citizens. Their two-year recidivism rate is among the lowest in the world at 21 percent.  

Compare these numbers to those from Minnesota, a state of just over 5.7 million people that has 21,000 behind bars, 11,000 of these in prison. This is an incarceration rate of 342 per 100,000 citizens, inclusive of all jails and detention centers (2021).  

Now, I don’t want to unfairly single out my beautiful home state here. I make this comparison because the similarities in population highlight the differences in outcomes because of differences in culture. There are many cultural differences both at the state level and in the national penal systems of Norway and the United States. But given that Norway has turned from a dysfunctional, counterproductive prison paradigm to one of great effect, it is incumbent upon all of us who seek reform in corrections to pay close attention. To understand the differences in outcomes and culture, you have to understand Norway’s fundamentally different starting point.  

From Philosophy to Function 

Talking to both my Norwegian peers in prison operations and to politicians and other stakeholders, the most important point is that the humanity of the prisoners is honored. The slogan they use to share the philosophy is “Punishment that makes a difference.” The punishment is the removal of their freedom, and there is no appetite for dehumanizing treatment, much less what we see in America’s tolerance for violence and corruption that arises from a culture of hopelessness behind the walls.  

Translated into policy and procedures, this means that the top priority is empowering officers to deal with residents in smart, proactive, and collaborative ways. They receive extensive training in an academy for two years, learning everything from de-escalation strategies, social work, and basic medical care, to become a kind of coach—one who sees residents’ positive outcomes as his or her own.  

One of the effects of this vision of officer empowerment is that in 2022, the system received 1,000 applications for 175 open positions. Interestingly, the unions conduct the interviews—500 of them for the available positions this year. The attractiveness of the position means that they can and must be selective.  

Like our prisons, the facilities are secure, with fences, cells, and the like. But there is no overcrowding, and residents have their own, sparsely furnished cells. Residents spend most of the day out of their cells, working and engaging in programming directed toward life after prison. While in many American facilities, it’s common to see excessive idle time and lack of programs (due to limited resources and non-supportive culture in the U.S. system).   

Here, you can see what some industry experts refer to as “dynamic security,” in which officers develop a professional relationship with prisoners. The key is to empower officers to recognize and defuse problems before they escalate rather than react with military-like procedures after things get out of control. I was able to implement this in a contract facility in Florence, AZ, and I saw immediately how it changed the facility’s culture and the relationships between staff, officers, and residents.  

More Like a Campus 

We toured two of Norway’s thirty-seven prisons. Many of the residents are from outside Norway, primarily from Eastern Europe. The average sentence is six months. Both of the facilities we visited in Oslo and Halden were, though secure, remarkably open with a notable lack of tension between staff and residents. The facilities felt more like campuses than prisons, with green space, walking paths, and trees onsite. I actually ate a plum off a tree while walking with the warden at the maximum security Halden facility (Yes, it was delicious). The vocations programs were state of the art and varied—exactly as I’ve envisioned for Social Purpose Corrections-run facilities here in the U.S.  

Norway’s system still has its problems. While a great deal is spent on officer training, they still see high turnover due to salary and other concerns. And some we spoke to said that the training is also in need of updating as it often does not reflect the reality inside the facilities. And, while the facilities we toured were maximum and medium security, there are prisoners who require even more security if they prove unable or unwilling to take the path of development and collaboration.  

Further, the Norway System is very expensive, with most of the funding going to staff training, pay, benefits, and the like. As an operations guy, I was constantly scanning for ideas and procedures that I could see translating to American prisons, and others that would need adjustment. Though I appreciated their low officer-to-resident ratios and elaborate training regime, for example, my sense was that, based on my own experience as warden and security director, we could have great success with substantially less investment.  

What’s important to notice is that the system is not about creating harsh punishment, it’s about keeping society, and staff, safe while allowing residents to change their behavior. One of the keys is a culture of “normality”—officers and other staff keep things as similar to the outside world as possible. Just as in the United States, most of their prisoners will return to society, and Norway keeps this reality in constant focus. The American system of government- and private, for-profit-run prisons is also very expensive, but its incarceration and recidivism rates are many times higher—with devastating financial and social costs for American society.  

Finally, it’s true that the Norway System works in large part because it’s in Norway. But it’s also true that there are many specific lessons we can learn and apply in the American correctional system that improve staff quality of life and thus improve mental health, retention, and security. Done well, this will, in turn, lead to lower recidivism rates, fewer victims in society harmed by former prisoners, and bending down our country’s tragically high incarceration rate curve. Some of the same basic ideas are already working well in Belize, even though the social and political environment is very different.  

I named our organization Social Purpose Corrections because the goal is not just to improve facility operations but to reinvent a broken system that, right now, makes society less safe. Norway’s effectiveness and courage in doing this demands our attention.  

Brian Koehn is the Founder and CEO of Social Profit Corrections.