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Nordic Prisons Lose Gentility

New climate of violence is blamed on gangs, drugs, foreigners and a tougher attitude among criminals. Still, nations strive for rehabilitation.

June 08, 2003|Karl Ritter | Associated Press Writer

NORRTAELJE, Sweden -- The razor-edged concertina wire sparkling in the faint winter sun bears witness to a harsher climate at Norrtaelje prison.

A decade ago, the fence wasn't needed, even at this high-security compound holding convicted murderers and rapists.

But a string of escapes and uprisings among the 200 inmates in the mid-1990s resulted in extra security inside the 9-foot-high prison wall, and a riot squad is kept on 24-hour alert.

"Before '95, '96, there were seldom fights between inmates," Deputy Warden Anders Ekstroem said. "Since then, there have been a lot of trips to the hospital."

It's a distasteful turn for Sweden, which, like other Nordic nations, has long championed a humane approach to dealing with criminals. Problems are also increasing elsewhere in the region.

In Denmark, Jens Tolstrup, warden of Nyborg prison 90 miles west of Copenhagen, says Danes used to believe "all types of prisoners could be in all types of prisons." Now prisons have units for the most dangerous.

Swedish prison officials blame the worsening conditions on gangs, drugs, an influx of foreigners and a harder attitude among criminals. Still, few Swedes question the system's focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, although some say the rise in violence shows that the approach is too soft.

"One shouldn't praise a model to the heavens because it looks good on paper," said Beatrice Ask, a lawmaker with Sweden's conservative Moderate Party. "We have way too many people who relapse into crime, way too many who don't get the correctional treatment they need. And we have a few who aren't punished who should be punished."

Defenders of the system counter that the crime rate remains relatively low and that problems inside prisons are minor compared to other Western countries.

"We're not going to have American conditions in our prisons," Justice Minister Thomas Bodstroem said.

Still, he concedes that Swedish prisons have had to adjust to a "different clientele," isolating the most violent and restricting unsupervised leaves.

Officials say prison murders were unheard of until 1993, when an inmate was killed at a maximum-security lockup. Since then, five more have been slain by other prisoners and one died during an escape attempt.

Prison staff aren't armed, and none has been killed by an inmate, but violence or threats of violence against them and their families are more frequent, union officials say. "Before, there were certain boundaries that weren't crossed," said Roal Nilssen, ombudsman for prison staff at the union for state employees.

Much violence stems from gang rivalry, officials say. In the 1990s, motorcycle gangs like the Hells Angels or Bandidos carried on their turf wars behind bars.

Those gangs have been eclipsed by immigrant gangs from big-city suburbs, according to a 2001 report by the Prison and Probation Service. It identified the Original Gangsters as the most violent prison gang.

"These new groups, the suburb gangs, they know no limits and they see society as enemy No. 1," said Hans-Olof Larsson, warden at Norrtaelje prison.

Jarmo Lehtonen, security chief at the maximum-security Hall prison south of Stockholm, says the changes began after the Iron Curtain fell.

"Before, we hardly had any inmates from Eastern Europe. Now we have Russians, Balts, Poles and Czechs. They are definitely tougher people than Scandinavians," he said. About 30% of the inmates are not Swedish.

Andrew Coyle, director of the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College in London, says that despite the rise in violence, the Nordic approach should be a model for the world.

"They take the view that locking up the citizens of a country is something to be avoided," he said. "It's not a question of being soft on criminals; it's a question of what is best for society."

Incarceration rates in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland range between 30 and 60 per 100,000 people. The average for Western Europe as a whole is 90. In the United States, it's more than 700.

In the Nordic countries, people convicted of less serious crimes, such as theft or drunken driving, are usually released with electronic monitoring bracelets or given community service. The most serious sentence is life in prison, which in reality means 10 to 15 years. Like the rest of Western Europe, the Nordic countries do not have the death penalty.

In prison, inmates are offered psychological counseling, anti-aggression workshops and drug rehabilitation, along with high school and college courses and factory work.

Regardless of their program, inmates get a small daily allowance, part of which is set aside for periodic leaves. Mikael, a convicted rapist who declined to give his last name, said he works for 13 kronor ($1.50) an hour in the Norrtaelje prison furniture factory, making tables, chairs and shelves.

Once a month, he's allowed to leave for an unsupervised eight-hour visit with his family.

"If you want to get back on your feet, then this system works," Mikael said, before entering his cell equipped with a television, laptop computer, stereo and table fan.

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