Danish Prisons: Dinner for Wife and Kids
Pearce, Nick, New Statesman (1996)
By the end of the next parliament, the number of people locked up in England and Wales is likely to reach 100,000. That's twice as many people in prison compared to a decade or so ago. Already top of the western European incarceration league, we are now heading firmly towards a US-style mass penal system.
I put that fact to the Danish justice minister last week, while filming a piece on criminal justice. A conservative in a centre-right coalition, she looked incredulous. Her country imprisons people at roughly half the UK rate. It does all it can to keep people out of jail, and once there, to prepare them for life back in the community. Its sentences are short, but its reoffending rates far lower. In Denmark, prison appears to work for the right reasons.
We visited Ringe state prison, on the island of Funen, to find out what conditions are like. Barely visible behind a wall sunken into the bleak, flat landscape, Ringe is a high-security prison for offenders who have committed serious crimes such as murder and armed robbery. But beyond the CCTV and high-tech surveillance equipment, Ringe is far removed from the Victorian panopticons of the British prison system.
Prisoners live in small units with communal kitchens. They cook daily meals for themselves and their wardens with food purchased twice a week from a branch of the local Spar supermarket set up inside the main building. Ringe is a mixed-sex prison and married couples live in a special wing. Children can live with their parents in prison until the age of three. Sex between inmates is permitted if wardens are convinced that the relationship is serious. There is a special drug-free unit in a small outbuilding, and all prisoners can access drug treatment services.
Each day, inmates are woken up at seven to go to workshops, to clean and do their laundry, or study for exams. The idea is that prison existence should approximate normal life where possible. When Ringe prisoners are discharged into the community, they are offered a place to live, an income in return for work or education, and a contact to call if they think they are at risk of getting into trouble. …