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28 November 2014

Can the UK prison system follow Sweden’s example?

Sweden’s prison population is shrinking, and they are actually closing facilities because they aren’t needed. What are they doing differently?

By Lilian Pizzichini

It would be easy to say that if Nils Oberg, who is Head of Sweden’s Prison and Probation Service, occupied the same position here, the UK’s prison population would dwindle from 86,000 to 30,000. It is easy to say this – Jon Snow, Channel 4 broadcaster and Lord Longford Trust patron, said it in his introduction to this year’s Longford Lecture given by Nils Oberg.

The case remains that Oberg has directed an approach to custodial sentencing that has been so effective that, as Jon Snow further pointed out, Sweden has as many people in prison as the UK has women in prison (currently just less than 4,000). Of course, as Oberg would be swift to point out, the comparisons don’t work because of demographic and cultural differences.

Perhaps it’s the British flair for grandstanding policies and headline statements that undermines the need for quiet consideration of the facts. The key differences between Sweden and the UK, Oberg revealed, are political and financial. Swedish politicians have no jurisdiction over the running of the prison and probation services. Furthermore, prisons are entirely state-funded. So Oberg has the power to stick to the policies that he and his staff believe are effective. The situation here is more complex. A good example of external pressures being brought to bear on prison policies is in education provision where every three years contracts are put out to tender. This results in an emphasis on targets being reached that will enhance profitability rather than achieving consistently meaningful intervention in the education of prisoners.

But even if training and education are available prisoners cannot access them because officers are unavailable to escort them from the wings into the workshops. Low staffing ensure that UK prisoners are locked in their cells for long periods throughout the day. Frustration is constantly simmering below boiling point.

Meanwhile Sweden’s prison population is down by six per cent and only 30 per cent of prisoners re-offend. They are actually closing prisons in Sweden. So what do they do with prisoners once they are incarcerated?

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There are two main principles in Oberg’s policy: firstly, “Treat prisoners as human beings”, and secondly “Make every day in prison count”. The difference (being “banged up” in the UK and “every day counts” in Sweden) is already telling. Underlying this approach, there is a “strong faith in the capacity to change [that] is deeply embedded in our staff strategy.”

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The key factor is staff-prisoner relations: one staff member is allocated to each prisoner. One prison manager said to her new recruits: “If you want to work on my team you have to like all kinds of people.” As in the UK, security and law-enforcement are crucial to the role of prison officer but so is unconditional respect for inmates. “Talk, listen, reason and guide. We provide role-models inmates have never had.”

“Every day counts.” In Sweden, 80 per cent of prisoners are sentenced to less than a year. Courts are sentencing more leniently especially for drug-related offences. So Oberg’s prison staff have a small window of opportunity in which to address their inmates’ many issues “within a strong, supportive environment”.

For young offenders the emphasis is on reducing the damaging effect of isolation custodial sentences bring with them. Probation services use the time before trial to motivate and establish healthy relations.

Different professions work with different needs but they are well co-ordinated. (i.e. there are none of the complex funding issues that beleaguer the British system.) The Swedish rehabilitation strategy addresses the “whole picture – all their problems at the same time – multi-modality we call it – using cognitive programmes, social services, employment agencies, and all the treatments including twelve-step for drug and alcohol-related issues.” Swedish prisons employ 12-step counsellors and other experts in the field to tackle addiction which lies at the root of so much crime. Once the drugs and alcohol are taken away (“regular testing reveals that there is less than one per cent intoxication amongst our inmates”), the deep-rooted problems can be tackled. These are “depression, ADHA, Asperger’s, weak affiliation to the labour market, educational problems, broken families”. There is a better chance of achieving sustainable results, Oberg says, if “you deal with these problems in parallel”.

One interesting difference is the employment of 12-step counsellors by the Swedish state to address substance misuse. This does not take place in the UK. “You can get more drugs in here than you can get on the streets,” one prisoner told me when I was working in the prison system. Indeed, officers spend most of their time detecting and eliminating routes into prison for contraband. In short, Swedish prisons have achieved a complete absence of drugs, weapons and alcohol. Officers are given training in behavioural science as well as security. They are not just “officers”, they are “caretakers”. The results cause headlines in the UK.