The Danish Prison Model Normalisation, openness and responsibility by Jens Tolstrup
© STAN HENKEMAN / CCR
A prison museum in Faaborg, Denmark.
“That when in truth one is to succeed in leading a person to a certain place, one must above all take care to find him where he is and start there”. (Søren Kierkegaard) o prison system can be separated from the social reality that surrounds it. Conditions for prisoners must more or less reflect conditions for ordinary citizens of society. For example, it is natural that a country’s economic situation determines the appearance of its
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prisons. It is just as plain that a country’s social, educational and general culture influence the opportunities and facilities offered to prisoners. Prison systems in democratic countries aim to give prisoners the best chances of being able to live and function as good, law-abiding citizens under the given socioeconomic conditions. All such prison systems set limits as to how they can and should treat offenders; these limits are to a wide extent what we call ordinary human rights.
I have some knowledge of South Africa’ prison services from two study visits to your magnificent country. But I do not have sufficient knowledge about the economic, social, political and cultural conditions — and the prison services in this context — to express an opinion with any weight on South African prisons. What I do know something about, though, is the Danish Prison and Probation Service, which could offer in a publication such as this, some useful comparisons with South Africa’s prison system.
Above all, normalisation means that prisoners retain their civil rights. This implies: • the right to vote in elections and belong to political bodies on an equal footing with other citizens; • the right to both verbal and written self-expression both in the prison and vis-à-vis the general public and the press; • the right to be a member of any association whatsoever; • the right to a family life; • the right to deal with one’s property; and • the right to practice a religion, and so forth.
Small is beautiful Seen from South Africa, Denmark is a strange country. In Punishment is solely the many respects it is the contrast to the big melting pot of deprivation of liberty South Africa. • Denmark is small — 47 000 km2 of lowland islands The normalisation principle is closely related to another between the North Sea and the Baltic; fundamental principle which holds that imprisonment, • it is fairly densely populated with 5,5 million Danes, who speak one national language; by the deprivation of liberty, is the punishment in itself. The prison service or staff members are not • we are homogeneous (not to say monolithic) with respect permitted to place additional suffering to the deprivation to ethnic background, culture and religion; of liberty of the prisoner. The restrictions imposed on the • we are a wealthy country and do not have a poverty prisoner’s everyday life — the deviations made from problem; and ordinary civil rights — is necessary to maintain the • we have free education including universities, free meddeprivation of liberty and to keep discipline. An example of ical care and a fine social security system. such a restriction is that a prisoner has no right to leave the The only disadvantages seem to be that we have two winters prison without permission. In — a green one and a white one other words, the ordinary civil — and that we pay a lot of taxes. adding suffering to the right called freedom of location Nonetheless, we do have crimideprivation of liberty of is severely limited. Purely for nality and prisons. security reasons, prisoners in Being an old and wealthy the prisoner is not permitted closed prisons do not, for democracy, securing human example, have permission to rights and fair treatment of have telephones and computers in their cells. prisoners should not be a big issue in daily life, but even in In light of the normalisation principle, most Danish Denmark human rights need nourishing and protection prisoners serve their sentences in open prisons where there and ill treatment of prisoners must be prevented. The basic are no bars and fences; security is based on faith in the principles for securing human rights and regulating the life prisoner’s self discipline. In open prisons it is easier to of the prisoner in Danish prisons are “normalisation” and adapt everyday life to conditions outside. In closed prisons “openness”. it may be difficult to live up to the normalisation standard, but having this principle constantly in mind is an efficient remedy against habitual thinking. Normalisation This is not to imply that the Danes invented the open Normalisation means that conditions in prisons must be prison system to apply normalisation. In the past prison arranged so that they correspond, to the extent possible, to sentences were served in closed, single cell prisons under a conditions outside. This principle is important for all strict regime, but during and after the Second World War aspects of daily life in our prisons. It is the basis of all the there was a considerable lack of capacity to operate these rules and the physical layout of Danish prisons. The prisons so open camps came into use — and they worked! normalisation principle implies that, to the extent The mere need for money helped Denmark to discover a practical and possible on grounds of security, prisoners lucky solution. may have their own possessions in their cells. Staff uniforms are of non-military appearance and the tone used between staff and prisoners corresponds to the Openness general tone of communication between citizens outside The principle of openness has two sides: the prison. This means that everyday life in Danish prisons • general openness of prisons to the press and national and is of a civil character.
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© STAN HENKEMAN / CCR
Danish prisoners cook and eat together in communal living units. Here they entertain a South African delegation comprising staff of CCR and Pollsmoor Prison, who visited Danish prisons for study purposes.
international control bodies; and • the individual prisoner’s possibility to retain contact with the outside world. These days the openness principle implies that prisoners may correspond with anyone without censorship. Reading of a prisoner’s letters only takes place under special circumstances. Letters to defence counsel, Members of Parliament and different appeal bodies may never be read. Prisoners have access to radio, television and newspapers in their cells, as well as in communal areas in the prison. They are also free to participate in free debate in the press. Limits can be set with regard to prisoners wishing to appear on television in programmes about actual crimes committed by them. However, this is done out of consideration for the victims. For all other purposes prisoners are free to contact journalists and to be visited by them. Prisoners are also entitled to weekly visits from relatives. The visit is predominantly without control of any kind and either takes place in the prisoner’s cell or in special visiting rooms designed for the purpose. Prison staff naturally make sure, as far as possible, that a visit is not used to smuggle in narcotics or weapons. Apart from these security measures, there is no interference in a visit, for whatever purpose it is used. Visiting rooms are
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furnished so that the prisoner and the visitor can be alone together. As with visits from outside, leave from prison for the prisoner is also a normal part of Danish prison life. In open prisons prisoners are normally granted weekend leave from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening every third weekend. At any given time, approximately a third of all prisoners in closed prisons are granted leave on a regular basis. The above measures mean that prisoners are, to a very high degree, not cut off from ordinary community life. This in turn means that there is considerably less tension in Danish prisons than in more traditionally closed prisons.
Outside oversight of prisons At the international level Danish prisons are regularly inspected by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. Committee members have free access to all prisons in Denmark and can speak with whomever they want without control. The Committee has regularly inspected Danish prisons and found a number of matters needing improvement. The inspection reports include
everything from quite general considerations of principle grammes such as those for drug addicts, daily life skills, to very specific details concerning conditions in the anger management and conflict resolution. prisons. Traditionally, everyday life in prison is synonymous with At the national level most of the independent boredom and monotony, which is reinforced by the inspections are carried out by the Parliamentary Ombudsprisoner’s seclusion from the surrounding world. man, who undertakes a large number of inspections This often leads to prisoners becoming inactive and annually. Each inspection gives rise to a report on a range eventually (mentally) passive. They can lose their of issues, from physical conditions in the pri-sons to motivation to change. To counteract this downward observance of formal case work rules and concrete comspiral, it is necessary to create as much variation plaints from prisoners. In as possible in the daily life addition, the Legal Affairs of the prison. As previously staff attitudes and practise Committee of the Danish mentioned, the punishment is towards prisoners are Parliament, Folketinget, also only the deprivation of the visits a number of prisons prisoner’s liberty, not boredom essential to create and annually to question prisoners and passivity. maintain a human rights about their treatment. Employment — work or educulture in prisons Additionally, there is an internal cation — leisure-time and inspection facility that annually cultural activities create variainspects and assesses a number of Danish institutions to tion in everyday life and thus the commitment essential to ensure that rules and guidelines are applied correctly and create the learning culture in the prison, which the Danish to check whether physical conditions in prisons are system is aimed at. satisfactory. The treatment of prisoners is also regularly raised by various non-governmental organisations. However, the most important control to ensure that no Prison staff ill treatment of prisoners occur lies not with the formal Prisons are comprised of human beings — prisoners and control bodies, but rather with prisoners. A prisoner has staff alike. But sufficient physical conditions, human free access to contact the press if he or she feels exposed to rights and control bodies do not make a humane prison. injustices. This kind of control is prompt, informal and Staff attitudes and practise towards prisoners are essential non-bureaucratic. If prison authorities cannot to create and maintain a human rights culture. A lot of convincingly repudiate a prisoner’s criticism, the result is resources go into employing sufficient staff so that they often that the Minister of Justice answers for it politically feel secure working in the prison. A staff member is in parliament. required to have an adequate training background and a personality that reflects pride in ensuring the human rights of prisoners. The prisoner’s responsibility The biggest resource in the Danish prison is its staff. Therefore it is utterly important that they be an active The prisoner must have an opportunity to develop a sense part of the daily life of the prisoners. Often, the attitude of responsibility, self-respect and self-confidence and of prison staff is influenced by their “guardian role”. become motivated to actively strive for a crime-free life, If the attitudes of prison staff are to be changed for the Danish Programme of Principles says. Somebody once the benefit of the desired learning culture, their role said, that one cannot train men for freedom in captivity. has to be changed so that they do not only concentrate But one can use elements of normal life in prison, a core on work relating to surveillance and security. The element of which is the notion of making choices. traditional “guardian role” of prison staff is narrow, According to the Danish way of thinking, the prisoner with the most important element of the work being should, as far as possible, own his or her life. Ownership to ensure the prisoner’s presence in prison for the should not lie fully with the prison or staff. One could say duration of his or her sentence, that is, preventing that such a view helps to develop the life competence of escapes. It is therefore very important to qualify staff to the prisoner. take on commonplace functions in the daily spheres of The prisoner’s life competence can be obtained through prison life. This means tasks that have to do with at least two processes: treatment and activities of prisoners in addition to • personal acquisition of norms, values and experiences; security functions. and • acquisition of knowledge and skills. In Denmark the prisoner is by law obliged to work. Work can be maintenance of the prison, production Conclusion or education. Education can be traditional subjects such The main purpose of the Danish prison system is to conas reading, writing and Mathematics or specific pro-
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© STAN HENKEMAN / CCR
Jens Tolstrup (standing) addresses staff of Pollsmoor Prison and CCR on a study tour to Danish prisons.
tribute to reducing crime. Our primary task is the implementation of the sanction. In doing so we exercise the necessary control and security, while at the same time supporting and motivating the prisoner towards a crime-free life by assisting his or her personal, social, vocational and educational development. A good starting point for the second aspect of our task in the prison is the wise words of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard:
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“That when in truth one is to succeed in leading a person to a certain place, one must above all take care to find him where he is and start there”. Jens Tolstrup is the Prison Governor at the State Prison in Nyborg, Denmark. For further information on the Danish Prison and Probation Service and their Programme of Principles visit their website at: www.kriminalforsorgen.dk