Hard time made harder

As violence against prison guards sharply increases, the Justice Minister Søren Pape Poulsen has warned that the Danish prison model may need a rethink. While he wants more focus on the prison's role as punishment, experts and the Danish Prison Officers Union warn that violence will only escalate if guards are discouraged from forming relationships with inmates.

“That guy there – he is the world’s best man,” says A*, and points to the closed door. On the other side of it stands the prison guard who escorted A to the visitation room where he is now sitting.

“He’s the one who motivated me to get off drugs. He said, ‘Believe me, it’ll help you’. And it did. I haven’t smoked weed in three months, and I don’t want to either,” he says, nodding to himself.

The visitation room at Enner Mark Prison has a large window that looks out over two grassy fields separated by a three-metre-high fence. On the other side, by a building, a guard and an inmate stand and smoke cigarettes. They don’t appear to be aware of each other either – just two guys smoking and staring into their own space. The inmate finishes and goes back inside. The guard blows out another smoky breath and remains, leaning against the wall.

Prison guards do more than simply ensure that criminals serve their sentences without harming themselves or each other – guards in Danish prisons also function as motivational rehabilitators by developing relationships with the inmates in their care.

This relationship is now up for review, however. With increasing gang activity across the country and a steep increase in violence against prison guards last year, justice minister Søren Pape Poulsen is drawing up new guidelines and priorities for the prison and probation service. Among his ideas is reducing the resources spent on resocialising hardened criminals.

“We need to reconsider whom we choose to resocialise,” Poulsen told Information newspaper.

“I want to look at how we split the resources between resocialisation – education and work – and the security situation for the inmates. Being in prison should be hard – it shouldn’t feel good.”

While the proposals are not expected until the autumn, he has told the Danish Prison Officers Union Magazine that he wants a greater degree of separation between punishment and rehabilitation. Guards in closed prisons – such as the one A is in – could end up focussing much more on punishment, and less on forging relationships with the inmates.

Guards under pressure
The idea hasn’t garnered much support, however, especially not from Kim Østerbye, president of the Danish Prison Officers Union.

“The more we distance ourselves from the inmates, the more the violence will increase. Basically, it’s harder to punch someone if you know them,” he says.

Østerbye is outspoken about the challenges facing the Danish prison system, which is understaffed and suffering from high levels of sick leave among staff. The latter issue may be related to the 50 percent increase in violent incidents directed at prison staff between 2015 and 2016, when over 500 violent incidents were reported.

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Despite these challenges, the Danish prison system is relatively successful, and only 25 percent of inmates reoffend after release. Østerbye argues that guards help motivate the inmates and reinforce good behaviour, which keeps recidivism low. In Norway, which employs a similar rehabilitation system, reoffending is even lower, at 20 percent.

By contrast, in countries where prison guards keep a greater distance from inmates, such as France and the UK, recidivism stands at around 40 to 45 percent.

“Developing relationships is what we excel at in Scandinavia,” Østerbye says. “The inmates need motivation if they are to change their behaviour, and you can’t motivate negatively. If the only relationship you have is negative management of your behaviour, the only thing we will see is a negative spiral that will turn against us.”

No pizza parties in prison
A knows a lot about hardened prisons – he was held on remand in Turkey while waiting to be picked up by Interpol.

“They walk around with whips there,” he says, and leans over the table.

“I’ll tell you, I’d never consider jaywalking in Turkey. They cram you in with 300 other people. It’s horrible.” He shakes his head. “But in Turkey, there’s hatred towards the system. They don’t try to help you, only scare you. Here they want to help you be a better human being.”

The Scandinavian prison model is recognised around the world for its focus on treatment and rehabilitation rather than punishment. Inmates are given work duty, and can use the money they earn to buy a wide range of food and convenience products. They can even buy yeast they can use to bake bread in their kitchens.

A works in the carpentry workshop, where he makes furniture used in the prison, including here, in the visitation room.

“It’s much better than the guys who get to put tiny screws in little plastic bags all day,” he says and laughs. “But it’s all still work, even if it only pays ten kroner an hour.”

Rehabilitation programs such as these can reduce recidivism, according to a report prepared for the Justice Ministry in 2015. The report also found that tougher sentencing does not reduce the likelihood of reoffending, and can even increase criminal behaviour.

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The low rates of recidivism in both Norway and Denmark are a testament to this fact, says Østerbye.

“For some reason, it just so happens to work better our way. And it’s not about sharing pizza with the inmates,” he says.

“Some people practically think that that’s what we do, and that’s just nonsense. It’s about making people stop committing crime, by showing them that they can’t beat up the old lady in the grocery store when she bumps into them, but that they should manage their anger instead. That’s all we do. It’s not some fancy system.”

Sympathy is security
Assistant Professor Lise Billund of the Institute of Communication and Psychology at Aalborg University wrote her PhD on the dual role of prison guards as both rehabilitators and enforcers of order and security.

“The guards are expected to be able to balance security and order on one side, and support and motivation on the other. It’s obviously very complex,” she says.

“The guards feel the work they do in terms of relationship-building is extremely important to the safety dynamic.”

She is concerned that an increased focus on punishment will only result in more aggression and anger that will not only increase violence against the guards, but also jeopardise the rehabilitation of the inmates.

Instead, prison guards should have more comprehensive training in how to handle their dual role of control and rehabilitation.

“The guards are well-educated in safety measures, but when it comes to the supportive relationships they develop, they are mostly left to their own convictions of right and wrong as well as to the culture of the place,” she says. “The role of the guards is extremely complex with its two opposing dimensions, and they need the correct tools to be able to carry it out.”

No promises
Justice minister Poulsen now says he is happy to have initiated a debate about the prison system. He says he plans to take the pushback from Østerbye and other experts into consideration in the autumn when negotiations about the future of the prison system begin. But he also declines to make any promises.

“There’s a reason someone is in prison. We have to focus on the victims of the crimes, and being incarcerated shouldn’t be a bed of roses,” he told The Murmur. “I may have spoken harshly about it, but I don’t believe in coddling inmates.”

Outside the window of the visitation room, the smoking guard is long gone.

A sees a group of inmates walking on the grass.

“They must be going to get groceries,” he muses, and buzzes the intercom on the wall.

“We’re done in here!”

“All right,” a guard’s voice responds, and the door swings open. M

A is not the inmate’s real name.

Features, News

By Simone Nilsson

Journalist student from the Danish School of Media and Journalism. Sometimes she draws and writes about feminism.

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