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For Real Prison Reform Ideas, Study North Dakota and Norway?

Speaking of North Dakota and sensible reforms, perhaps South Dakota could find a blueprint for improving working conditions in our state prisons by looking at North Dakota’s corrections reforms. Instead of superficial and counterproductive stunts, North Dakota corrections officials have adopted practices they observed on a 2015 trip to Norway:

The Norwegian prison system boasts a 20 percent recidivism rate – compared to the 76.6 percent recidivism rate in the U.S. – and includes Halden Prison, considered the most humane prison in the world. Sixty-three of every 100,000 people are incarcerated in Norway versus 655 per 100,000 in the U.S.

Creating good neighbors is the goal of the Norwegian prison system, with no mention of punishment or retribution. The concept stands in stark contrast to the discipline and punishment system deployed across the United States, evidenced by mandatory minimum sentences – policies that require a certain number of years in prison for specific crimes, regardless of individual situations – as well as solitary confinement and other policies that resulted from the “tough on crime” approach that gained popularity in the 1970s.

Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR), and Karianne Jackson, then the director of correctional practices at the DOCR, were among those on the Norway trip. Upon their return, the DOCR revamped its training to focus on dynamic security, a philosophy based on the idea that allowing people to make choices and giving them the opportunity to do better will lead to a safer prison because a person who is treated humanely is less likely to be violent [Cinnamon Janzer, “North Dakota Reforms Its Prisons, Norwegian Style,” U.S. News and World Report, 2019.02.22].

The Norway-inspired reforms included changes to solitary confinement at the North Dakota State Penitentiary:

Once called the Segregation Unit, those in solitary confinement at the Pen were on lockdown for 23 hours a day during the week and 24/7 on the weekends. Most stayed for eight to nine months on average and the return rate was roughly 42 percent.

It’s now called the Behavior Intervention Unit and it’s been redesigned to do exactly that.

The infractions that can land an inmate in the BIU have been restricted to 10 of the most serious (like murder or possession of weapons) instead of the essentially limitless number of possible offenses when staffs’ subjective opinions defined the criteria. Time there now includes four and a half hours of programming, such as behavioral treatment sessions or classes toward a GED diploma, each day. Every BIU resident is issued a report card and an improvement plan that consists of specific skills to be gained in order to move out. Most are released within the first 24 hours thanks to a new review system. Those who do stay are often out within a few months, and BIU recidivism hovers at 21 percent [Janzer, 2019.02.22].

Just as fewer inmates revisit the Behavior Intervention Unit, fewer inmates are revisiting prison after their release:

The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (NDDOCR) today reports encouraging data showcasing reduced recidivism rates in a person’s first year after release among former incarcerated individuals, falling from 22.8 percent in 2015 to 13 percent in 2018, the most recent data available. Recidivism is broadly measured by whether or not a person returns to incarceration within three years of release. The Department of Corrections believes this continuing trend is indicative of the implementation of numerous reentry-focused programs, their progressive approach towards adopting tablet technology—dating back to 2012—as well as the dedicated staff who build rapport with incarcerated individuals by providing authentic support to help build trust and confidence [North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, press release, 2020.07.27].

Adopting a more neighborly, or neighbor-making, prison system could reduce the prison population and ease the stress and danger that our prison guards say they face. It could also spare South Dakota’s Governor and Legislature from having to do the work they find so hard of coming up with new funding for long-term solutions—North Dakota’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation chief Dave Krabbenhoft indicates that a rehab-focused prison system can save lots of money:

The idea is to pivot from the tough-on-crime days of the 1980s and 1990s, when leaders took a harder, more punitive line on crime. But if that’s not enough to convince, Krabbenhoft supplies the numbers: it cost roughly $48,400 in the 2020 fiscal year to house an inmate in North Dakota, versus $1,800 to put them on parole. That latter number doesn’t count anti-drug programming and the like, Krabbenhoft concedes, but even that addition wouldn’t make the numbers close, he said [Sam Easter, “North Dakota’s Prison System, Weathering Covid, Looks to the Future,” Grand Forks Herald, 2021.01.23].

Adopting Norwegian prison reforms hasn’t come easily. Then-director Leann Bertsch found many staff didn’t want to adjust to this paradigm shift:

One of Bertsch’s primary goals was to reduce the segregated population — those in solitary confinement — as quickly and safely as possible. It’s known that prisoner isolation for long periods of time can cause lasting psychological damage, making it harder for the inmate to re-enter the larger prison population and ultimately society. Correctional officers are now required to engage in conversation with every resident at least twice per shift, helping them relate to each other as fellow human beings and not as adversaries. “Public safety is not increased by inflicting pain, humiliation, violence and disrespect,” Bertsch says. She cites a sharp decline in prison violence as evidence that the new ways are working.

But making significant changes to a prison system, even one as small as North Dakota’s, takes time. It was a year before Bertsch began to get things moving in a new direction. Her enthusiasm for the Norweigan approach wasn’t entirely contagious. In fact, she struggled to get everyone on board. “There was a lot of resistance when we came back to try to implement some of these things,” she says. Not everyone on staff could adjust. “A lot of them went out the door themselves and some of the people had to be kind of helped out the door” [David Kidd, “‘I’m Somewhere Bettering Myself’: Prison Reform Unlike Any Other in America,” Governing, 2018.07.31].

Changing our prison paradigm would not address all of the complaints lodged by anonymous South Dakota corrections staff, particularly the nepotism and sexual harassment they say is taking place our system. Some prison guards may say we couldn’t pay them enough to make them switch from playing tough guy to having daily conversations and weekly cornhole contests with their charges. But the Norway/North Dakota paradigm shift could make our prisons less crowded and less dangerous, improving the safety of staff and prisoners alike.


  1. Mark Anderson 2021-07-29

    You know Norwegians do it right but as far as transporting to Merica, good luck with that. We have way to many long necked Cotten picken senators from the troll party.

  2. cibvet 2021-07-29

    As evidenced in ND, when you modify the power structure that guards have over inmates, many will leave or be fired. It works the same way in police depts. Power over others is the primary reason some choose the jobs they are in because of lack of repercussions. Ever so slowly, it is starting to change.

  3. Arlo Blundt 2021-07-29

    well…cibvet is quite correct…whenever you have an institution with “Keepers” and the “Kept” you have power, domination, humiliation and coercion, even cruelty. People with defects of personslity are attracted to the Keeper role. Even worse, the Kept, prisoners in this instance, ape the role of the Keepers within their closed society. Its true in other institutional settings other than prisons. The entire model has to be changed and their will be many staff who will refuse to change their behavior and who must be relieved of their position. There are also many sincere and dedicated people in the corrections field who will welcome the change and adapt to the new environment….but its a major change, and those committed, talented people must be supported for the new model to succeed.

  4. DaveFN 2021-07-29

    Arlo, I wouldn’t want to overgeneralize via a vis people attracted to the so-called “Keeper” role.

    Some take the best jobs they can find based on their qualifications having nothing to do and entirely apart from any subjective “attraction.”

  5. Arlo Blundt 2021-07-29

    Yes, DaveFN, you are correct, and after a period of time they move on to other jobs, for the most part.There are always, solid, well motivated people working in institutions. They are generally dissaisfied with their circumstances as it is tough to work in an environment where crazy things happen as a matter of course. They are often valuable employees who are put in the impossible position of supervising shifts under the present model. They do the best they can.

  6. John Dale 2021-07-30

    I think we already handle this in the sentencing phase of a trial.

  7. Marilyn Broce 2021-07-30

    I say let Prison Fellowship create policy for prison reform. People do not have to go to prison to learn how to be socially acceptable by following the golden rule. Namely – do no harm. Goes both ways but it must be taught. It does not come naturally.

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