It was reported in the June 2018 issue of Prison Legal News (no title or author cited) that prisoners in the Salberga penal institution, located north of Stockholm, Sweden, have filed a complaint with the Ombudsman for Justice Office. They are protesting one “rough condition” in that maximum security facility, which holds prisoners convicted of violent crimes. Complaints and protests by prisoners in Sweden are uncommon because the Swedish government has directed prison personnel to focus on the rehabilitation of prisoners, rather than punishment, as American prisons are known for. Nils Oberg, Sweden’s director general of prisons, was recently quoted in The Guardian. “Our role is not to punish,” Oberg said. “The punishment is the prison sentence. They have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us.” Because the sole punishment is the loss of everyone and everything prisoners love in the outside world, Swedish prisons emphasize rehabilitating prisoners and preparing them for successful reentry in society.
During the nine-plus years that I have been incarcerated in an American jail and prison, I have read extensively about the harsh conditions and intractable problems found in penal institutions across the United States. In addition, I have studied the prison philosophy, institutional design, officer training programs and the treatment of prisoners in other Western countries, such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. My major interest has been in comparing the American and European criminal justice and penal systems. In light of the vast difference in the approaches to prison punishment and rehabilitation between the United States and Europe, I wondered what the nature of the complaint filed by the Swedish prisoners was. Svenska Dagbladet reported for Russian Television that the problem was this: the “standard issue toilet paper” is “harsh, uncomfortable, and single rolled [ply].” That’s it! After having a good laugh about that extraordinarily dire and virtually insurmountable difficulty faced by Sweden’s maximum security prisoners, I was reminded of the “severely punitive” treatment of its most notorious prisoner, Anders Brevik. Brevik killed 77 and wounded over 90 people in a bombing and automatic weapons attack on immigrants and immigration officials. For his “punishment,” Norway has housed Brevik in a comfortable three-roomed “cell,” with a bedroom, workout room with exercise equipment, and an entertainment center, featuring a flat-screen television and a PlayStation. Despite his amenities, Brevik filed a grievance with Norway’s Supreme Court about his limited socialization opportunities and lack of physical contact with visitors. The court agreed with the petition filed by Anders Brevik and has permitted physical contact with his attorney, priest and psychiatrist. The fact that Brevik remains completely unrepentant about his violent anti-immigration beliefs has not adversely affected the quality of his treatment in Norway’s prison system.
The unbridgeable gap between the remarkably humane treatment of prisoners in Sweden and Norway and the unmistakably punitive treatment of prisoners in the United States is profound. It is completely safe to say that no American prisoner will ever file a grievance about the roughness of standard issue, cheap toilet paper we use. The ongoing concerns of prisoners in the United States are substantive, and sometimes life threatening in nature. For example, the prison where I am located in the Commonwealth of Virginia has no air conditioning for prisoners – only for staff members. With sweltering, humid weather throughout the summer that regularly reaches heat index levels of 90°-105°F, people become ill. Some have died in these unhealthy conditions. Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) employees are not allowed to go without air conditioning during their 8-12 hour shifts, but prisoners sweat and cope with no A/C, 24 hours per day. VADOC employees are also provided with bottled water, because of the suspect water quality that prisoners have to drink. Today, the water we drink and shower in has a purplish-brown color, which does not inspire confidence. Other prisoner concerns across America include dangerous overcrowding, non-nutritious food, guard brutality, limited number and quality of institutional programs, limited recreation time, frequent lockdowns, solitary confinement, poor quality medical and mental health treatment, unfair parole procedures or no parole, etc.
As was noted in my previous blog, “On Dostoyevsky, Jesus and American Prisons,” the United States proudly calls itself “the greatest nation in the world.” Christians have claimed that America is “a Christian nation founded on biblical principles.” Regarding its criminal justice systems and the treatment of its prisoners, the United States is Old Testament rather than New Testament oriented in its values and practices “if there is a serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound.” (Exodus 21:23-25) This is the morality underlying the approach taken by judges and juries toward defendants around the nation. From the state and federal government sanctioned killing of the death penalty – banned as barbaric in Sweden, Norway and other European countries – to the frequent judgments of life without the possibility of parole, life and other long-term (more than 20 years, which are almost unheard of in Europe) sentences, the United States easily retains its dubious distinction as the mass incarceration capital of the world.
With a “lock the door and throw away the key” mentality, the criminal justice system in the United States typically defines the word “justice” as “conviction, with maximum punishment.” For example, when Americans declare that they want someone “brought to justice,” they mean that they want someone “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, convicted and sentenced to the longest prison sentence possible.” For the poor and poorly defended, this is what happens almost without exception. For affluent defendants in America, “justice” oftentimes is “one of the best things money can buy.” Justice in the American criminal justice system does not mean a fair and just trial, equal justice under the law regardless of income, or that “the truth and nothing but the truth” will be revealed during the legal proceedings.
Why is it that secular, humanistic oriented countries like Sweden and Norway, who make no pretense about being “Christian nations.” have a demonstrable record of fair and just court proceedings and the humane treatment of their prisoners? And why does the United States, which U.S. Christians have referred to as a “Christian nation founded on biblical principles,” have a criminal justice system that demonstrably favors wealthy defendants over the poor, is harsh, punitive and retributive, and treats its prisoners with punishment rather than rehabilitation? Why does “an eye for an eye” Old Testament judgmentalism prevail over the compassion of Jesus for prisoners and the poor in American criminal justice and prison systems? Ironically, the Old Testament concept of justice is more “Christian” than the prevailing American view of justice.
The Old and New Testament definitions of justice refer to “fair and equal treatment,” rather than “zealous prosecution, almost certain conviction and maximum punishment under the law,” as it often does in the United States. A brief biblical survey will illustrate this point. Amos 5:24 states, “Let justice roll on like a mighty river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” God’s idea is that life flourishes whenever there is justice and righteousness. In Micah 6:8, the prophet states that “He[God] has shown you, o mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This is the kind of obedience God requires of His covenant people. The Israelites were commanded by God to practice justice with all people, because God is just. “For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice, the righteous will see His face.” (Psalm 11:7) The Israelites were expected to fairly judge the rich and poor alike. “Do not show partiality in judging: hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of anyone, for judgment belongs to God.” (Deuteronomy 1:17) Israel’s prophets were commanded to speak out against injustice. “‘What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?’ declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 3:15) In the New Testament, Christians also taught that God is just. II Thessalonians 1:6 states “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you.” Jesus confronted the Pharisees with their injustice by accusing them of “neglecting the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23b) In the United States Constitution, the Thirteenth Amendment declares that all prisoners are slaves. “Slavery in these United States shall be abolished, except for those duly convicted in a court of law.” In the New Testament, slaveholders like State Departments of Correction and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, are required to treat their slaves fairly. Colossians 4:1 declares, “Masters provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you have a Master in heaven.”
What does all this mean? Namely, that the unfair and unjust criminal justice system in the United States and the harsh, punishment-driven American penal system not only fall well short of the ethical and moral standards of secular countries like Norway and Sweden, but also completely contradict the Old and New Testament teachings about justice and the treatment of the poor and prisoner-slaves. All Americans need to understand the broken, unfair and even corrupt nature of their criminal justice system, as well as the bloated, expensive and punishment obsessed prison industrial complex. The vast changes needed to reform both the American criminal justice and penal systems will never occur unless and until the full extent of their long standing problems are fully comprehended.