Bergen Prison in Bergen, Norway. Andrew Clark photo

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” — Nelson Mandela

Recently, 13 Connecticut justice system stakeholders joined the University of Connecticut’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy (IMRP) on a fact-finding mission to Norway to explore their correctional service system, which is generally regarded as being the most humane and effective in the world.

We visited three cities: Bergen, Oslo and Mysen and toured three prison facilities (Bergen, Bjørgvin and Indre Østfold) and a halfway house. We witnessed their youth, young adult, male, female, high and low restricted areas. We met with peers who work in and around the system, as well as those impacted by it. 

We learned of how their country turned around their broken system in the early 90s and 2000s through a commitment to human rights, high standards and reinvention. We broke bread with young officers, newly trained in that novel system and facing the familiarly intense challenges of intervening with those who have lived lives filled with trauma, addiction and mental illness.

It was a transformative experience.

We learned that the Norwegian correctional service is informed by a simple, yet profound belief in how ‘punishment’ is defined: When Norwegianers have been convicted of a crime their punishment is their sentence and the resulting loss of freedom; the rest is rehabilitation. The prison’s goal therefore becomes quite straightforward: To create good neighbors. 

As one correctional officer informed us, “We are the ones with the resources, the time and the means to take on the risks necessary to rehabilitate even the most challenging incarcerated individual, for if we do not do that, we push that risk on to the greater society.”

The implementation of this belief is both sublime and yet supremely simple. By framing their actions around the underlying theory of utilizing correctional services to “create good neighbors,” everyone working within the correctional system does their part to help incarcerated individuals successfully reintegrate. 

In doing so, they have come to learn that the most effective and prudent way to achieve this goal is by treating people humanely and with the normality that reflects life lived within greater society. To Norwegianers, this can only be accomplished through what they deem as the ‘import model:’ a transparent, collaborative, inclusive, just system that pulls the same quality of services from outside society and engages multiple stakeholders in the collective rehabilitation process. Rehabilitation is a challenging task, but they see it as their duty to society and set out to achieve it through phases of constant reflection and reinvention.

The results? Norway’s correctional service produces greater societal safety than the vast majority of countries in the world, including the U.S. Safer prisons, both for incarcerated individuals and those working with them. Safer communities, due to the significantly decreased likelihood that someone returning to freedom will commit a criminal act in the future. Safer overall society, as a more cost-effective use of taxpayer dollars engenders a greater trust in the system, its institutions, and each other.

Due to these results, Norway is often viewed through an almost utopic lens within justice conversations. To be sure, Norway’s system is not without its flaws, but it is fundamentally built on the recognition of the common humanity of the people who work in prison and the people who live behind the walls. Seeing that humanity in action gave us hope for a better future for the people we returned to at home.

The means by which we treat those who have committed even the most heinous crime is not merely a statement of our capacity to separate the person from the act, it also speaks to how we value our common humanity: the correctional officer, the advocate, the service provider, the policymaker, the researcher, the family member, the formerly incarcerated, and yes, our neighbor. 

Many of us believe that the U.S. model for incarceration does a profound disservice to everyone whose lives it touches. Conversely, Norway is doing something right. A nation achieving such transformative results is worthy of emulation.

Rep. Robyn Porter represents Hamden and New Haven’s 94th district. She co-chairs the Labor and Public Employees committee and sits on the Appropriations and Judiciary committees and has been serving in this capacity for almost a decade.

Jacob Werblow is a professor in the School of Education and Professional Studies at Central Connecticut State University and a former U.S. Fulbright Scholar (Kyoto, Japan).

Danielle T. Cooper is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Director of Research for the Tow Youth Justice Institute, both in the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven.

Barbara Fair is a licensed clinical social worker who has invested decades of her life working toward improving conditions inside the carceral system in Connecticut. The May 2022 passage of the PROTECT Act in Connecticut is a step toward the possibility of transformative change in how we treat incarcerated people inside Ct jails and prisons.

Robert J. Gillis is a retired Warden and Director of Parole and Community Services in the State of Connecticut Department of Correction

Iliana Pujols is the Policy Director at the Connecticut Justice Alliance and co-chair of the state’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee Community Expertise Workgroup.

Brittany LaMarr is the Project Manager of Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee at the Tow Youth Justice Institute.

Hope Metcalf co-teaches the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School. With her students, she has represented incarcerated people in Connecticut to challenge the use of solitary confinement and other abuses.

Andrew Clark directs the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at UConn, whose mission is to effectively inspire and sustain a just, equitable, and inclusive Connecticut.

Aileen Keays directs Connecticut’s Children with Incarcerated Parents Initiative at UConn, which seeks to support children with incarcerated parents and their families.

David J. McGuire is the executive director of the CT chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU-CT).

Eulalia Garcia is the District Administrator & Director of the Programs and Treatment Division at the Connecticut Department of Correction

Trina Sexton is the Warden at York Correctional Institution at the Connecticut Department of Correction.