Harrisburg, PA – The Department of Corrections recently hosted a delegation of prison officials from Norway to provide an opportunity to tour Pennsylvania prisons and exchange ideas on prison reform.
During the four-day tour the group visited four state correctional institutions, representing different security levels and focused programming: Graterford (maximum security), Camp Hill (diagnostic center), Chester (drug treatment) and Muncy (female facility). The group also toured SCI Phoenix, the state-of-the-art facility that will replace Graterford.
The highlight of the week was a community event at SCI Chester where Warden Are Høidal of Halden Prison in Norway, and Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel shared their ideas on modern corrections and discussed the practical and philosophical goals of prisons before an audience of regional corrections staff and educators from Drexel University, which sponsored the trip.
“I was transformed by my trip to see European prisons,” said Wetzel, who has toured prisons in Germany and the Netherlands. “They provided a vision of what could be in America.”
The American criminal justice system has traditionally focused on public safety, deterrence and punishment, while Norway and other European prison systems concentrate on restoration and rehabilitation.
The philosophy within U.S. prisons is changing, said Wetzel, who has put Pennsylvania at the forefront of this new approach to more humane, treatment-oriented and reentry-focused correctional facilities.
Wetzel said the DOC has adopted elements of the European model, such as creating transitional housing units to help inmates nearing release prepare to reenter the community. The agency also has expanded training for staff to address the high rates of mental illness among inmates and reduce violence through mental health first aid and crisis intervention.
Høidal said he was most impressed with the range of programming available to Pennsylvania inmates that addresses root causes of crime, such as drug and alcohol treatment, and that provide therapeutic support and jobs skills development, such as dog training.
“I think that this is a reciprocal relationship,” said Jordan Hyatt, a professor of criminology and justice studies at Drexel University who coordinated the tour. “While it may not be possible to copy the Norwegian approach, we can learn from their humane approach to corrections.
At the same time, our approach to evidence-based policy and an acceptance of the need to evaluate the impact and costs of programs are a model for corrections not prevalent there.”