The Equity Factor

Can Europe Offer the U.S. a Model for Prison Reform?

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“There’s a reason it’s called corrections and not punishment,” Rick Raemisch said. “Punishment doesn’t work.”

Raemisch, who is executive director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections and was part of a panel discussion on prison reform hosted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice earlier this year, was responding to a question on retributive incarceration. Yet, despite that simple and profound statement, since the 1960s, the U.S. criminal justice system has taken on an increasingly Puritanical streak with mandatory minimum sentences, dozens of new classes of felony, and repeat offender laws.

Now, as part of an effort to reverse more than four decades of broken prison policy, several states are beginning to look overseas for alternative models.

In February 2013 (a year before Raemisch took over his position), his predecessor, Tom Clements, joined delegations from Pennsylvania and Georgia on a fact-finding trip to Germany and the Netherlands sponsored by the Vera Institute of Justice. Both countries have largely replaced retributive and deterrence models with one whose primary goal is reintegrating inmates back into society as law-abiding citizens.

This makes sense: Punitive mass incarceration is not only exceedingly costly, but since 95 percent of inmates will eventually be released back into the community, it does little to help society either.

VIJ President Nicholas Turner and John Wetzel, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, described what they saw on the trip in an National Journal op-ed:

Inmates live in rooms and sleep in beds, not on concrete or steel slabs with thin padding. Inmates have privacy — correctional officers knock before entering — they wear their own clothes, and can decorate their space as they wish. They cook their own meals, are paid for work that they do, and have opportunities to visit family, learn skills, and gain education.

Indeed, the German and Dutch corrections systems are so committed to keeping inmates engaged in their communities that prisoners retain their right to vote during their sentences, and many offenders are given the option of spending weekends at home with their families.

Raemisch’s deputy, Kellie Wasko, a former warden who was also on the trip, says while this may seem antithetical to many Americans’ idea of what prison should be, ensuring inmates retain a connection with the people closest to them is a critical factor in lowering recidivism.

“We know that one of the primary crimogenic factors that leads to reoffending is a lack of family bonding,” she said. “Eventually this is something that could be beneficial for lower-custody, lower-risk offenders in the U.S. We already have work-release programs. It’s like a reverse work release.”

A focus on rehabilitation is evident in every aspect of the German and Dutch prison experience. From the width of the hallways to the placement of windows, the impetus is on creating a “therapeutic culture” for enabling inmates to return successfully to society, according to a 2013 VIJ report.

Staffing in German and Dutch prisons is composed largely of social workers, mental health professionals and attorneys; and unlike in the U.S., prison workers receive extensive training before being placed on a cellblock (two years in Germany compared to just five weeks in Colorado).

Wasko says that over the next year the Colorado DOC is going to begin training corrections staff in client-centered counseling techniques in an effort to bring her staff more in line with European standards.

“We can’t replace all of our supervisors with attorneys and social workers,” she said, “but we can start changing their mentality to show inmates that we’re here to advocate for them.”

According to Wetzel, Pennsylvania is also restructuring its basic training for officers in an effort to emphasize communication skills, motivational interviewing techniques, conflict resolution and mental health first-aid training.

While direct comparisons are tricky, research shows that nations that favor reintegration over punishment have lower rates of recidivism: The nation with the lowest overall recidivism rate, Norway, also has one of the most progressive prison systems in the world. But the differences between the European and American models of criminal justice begin well before the prison gate.

Since the goal of confinement is not public safety alone, but successful reintegration, locking someone up is typically viewed as a last resort in many European nations. In Germany and the Netherlands, less than one in 10 convicted criminal offenders are actually sent to prison. In the U.S., that number is closer to 70 percent.

In Germany, up to a third of all criminal cases are diverted away from prosecution altogether requiring offenders to pay reparations, attend classes or do community service. Since the 1980s, the Dutch have favored fines over incarceration, and 90 percent of all crimes in the Netherlands, including murder, have a fine as one of several adjudicatory options.

Even when criminals are sentenced to prison, they don’t always go. German courts typically suspend all custodial sentences of fewer than two years, amounting to a de facto term of probation. Wasko says that during her years as a warden, she encountered a number of inmates that didn’t really belong in prison.

“Both Germany and the Netherlands use community supervision and technology like electronic monitors much more than we do,” she said. “We use them too, but we tend to use them more on the backend, after an inmate is released. What if we put some of these measures on the front end instead?”

Barely a month after his return from Europe, Tom Clements was murdered by a parolee, Evan Ebel, who had spent almost his entire eight-year prison term in solitary confinement before being released directly onto the streets. Since then Raemisch has dedicated his tenure to reforming Colorado’s prison system, in part by working to incorporate some of the lessons his staff learned in Europe.

His staff is currently in the early stages of a cross-Atlantic collaboration with Swedish prison officials, who recently visited Denver to tour a facility there; and on July 1 the Colorado DOC will complete a months-long transition away from open-ended administrative segregation, replacing it with a new “maximum security” model in which inmates who are being disciplined automatically max out after 12 months. (Previously, the length of time an inmate spent in solitary was solely at the discretion of the warden, and regularly stretched into the years.)

“Understanding that there may be cultural differences that would not allow some methods to be successful here, we always need to explore and implement methods that are proven to work,” he said.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Christopher Moraff writes on politics, civil liberties and criminal justice policy for a number of media outlets. He is a reporting fellow at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a frequent contributor to Next City and Al Jazeera America.

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