The distinction between the Halden Fengsel Prison in Norway, and the USP-Florence (prison), aka USP-ADX, located in Florence, Colorado, is more than striking- it is like comparing Boy (or girl) scouts to Navy Seals. The Florence facility is run in a manner that most U.S. citizens would not be willing to tolerate if they were made aware of the inhumane conditions that exist within the concrete walls that house the roughly 500 prisoners. The cells are a 12-by-7 foot and designed in a way that prevents visual contact with other inmates, and the inmate is permitted to be out of his cell a maximum of one hour per day, again without contact with fellow inmates. There are numerous other horrific examples of brutal mistreatment of prisoners, some of which are set forth in the New York Times article referenced below. A former warden once called the facility “A clean version of Hell”. The inhumane treatment of prisoners is not exclusive to Florence, but it stands out mainly because of the type of prisoner who ends up there- the worst of the worse- prisoners who have either attempted or have killed inmates or staff in other facilities, escape risks, terrorists, the “Unabomber”, etc. In other words, we are not talking about the run-of-a-mill federal offender. Yet, the mission of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does not seem to limit their pledge to provide “humane care” to just some of the inmates- it is supposed to apply to all of them. That application of “humane care” seems nonexistent at USP-ADX. I suppose that tolerance levels lessen when some inmates if left to mingle in the general population, might stab or slice another inmate or guard without the slightest provocation, or throw feces into the face of a guard or act in an infinite number of other bizarre ways. But the fact is, we are a humane society and we must treat all prisoners decently; that includes the administration of medications specifically designed to confront the mental illness a particular defendant is suffering from- sophisms such as “We aren’t running a fun house”, and the like, should not be the controlling thought when it comes to psychiatric care for the more than 209,155 inmates in the BOP system – when it is known that a shocking number of them are suffering from a profound mental illness.
As the recent piece in the NYT discusses, the brutal conditions inside the USP-ADX are finally being exposed to the public due to a federal judge’s refusal to dismiss a lawsuit that has been brought by current and former inmates of the facility. Although the prison has taken steps to improve some conditions there since the suit, and federal lawyers are talking settlement, it appears that the hard-working (and underpaid, if paid at all) lawyers are making great progress. We wish them well.
Meanwhile, the NYT’s has also written an excellent piece on a prison in Norway called “Halden Fengsel”.
The facility is designed to be in conformance with the country’s national philosophy about the relative merits of punishment and forgiveness. This line of thinking has worked there. Only 75 per 100,000 people in Norway have ended up in prison according to recent statistics; in the United States, that number is 707 per 100,000 people. They also have one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world- 20% whereas the U.S. rate is 76.6%. There are no life sentences in Norway, the maximum sentence is 21 years- and of course, they do not have a death penalty. The main difference between the U.S. and Norway prison systems is that in Norway, they believe totally in treating prisoners humanely. Many prison officials and politicians in the United States, who are reacting to crime rates, have given up on rehabilitation and replaced the once honorable practice with policies and laws that are only concerned with retribution. We could learn from Norway.