What Sweden Can Teach America About Incarceration

The Kalmar Prison was built in 1852, thus making it one of the oldest Swedish prisons in use today. (Henrik Sundholm)

The Kalmar Prison was built in 1852, thus making it one of the oldest Swedish prisons in use today. (Henrik Sundholm)

Recently, Swedish officials announced the closing of four of its prisons. In stark contrast, half a world away in the U.S., many prisons remain operating over capacity. Does this mean that U.S. citizens on average are more prone to be criminals?

The answer all depends on how you consider the societal influences on crime.

Although recent expressions of indignation by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder towards “mass incarceration” have highlighted problems within America’s criminal justice system, that is not the origin of the inequalities. Rather, it is the social constructions of society or the lack thereof, which create and perpetuate crimes in the first place that need to be highlighted.

What Purpose Does Prison Really Serve?

Let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves, why do we have prisons?

Growing up in Sweden, I never viewed prison judgmentally. I assumed people who have committed “serious” crimes were deprived of their liberty for a period of time (“life” sentences in Sweden usually last 10 to 15 years) so they could “pay back” society for their misdeeds. Rather than seeking retribution, Sweden focuses efforts on rehabilitation and prevention. So I also  grew up empathizing, rather than condemning, fellow citizens for whom crime as part of their normal reality. However, since very few people I knew had spent time in prison, imprisonment was a possible, yet invisible component of the society for me. That is, until I came to the U.S.

In the U.S., many people fall prey to the subconscious perspective that anyone who commits a crime must be severely punished to protect the public. And due to American media’s constant hyper-sensualized images of violent murders, rapists, and people committing crimes while intoxicated, fearful U.S. citizens grow up believing prisons are just about the only appropriate response to “violent” crimes.

However, most inmates are not serving long sentences for violent crimes, rendering this ideology a fallacy.

What U.S. taxpayers are paying for is nothing more than a vicious cycle of the degeneration of humanity. Similar to a video game, specific “undesirable” and “useless” citizens are eliminated from society as communities and families are destroyed, all in the name of profit.

“What Is a Functional System?”

To fully comprehend the U.S. criminal justice system’s dysfunctionality, let’s look at a country with a contrasting punitive ideology, such as Sweden.

Swedish officials recently have ad to close at least four prisons because there aren’t enough inmates, and between 2011 and 2012, the prison population in Sweden actually dropped by 6 percent.

Nils Öberg, head of Swedish prison and probation services, acknowledged that this is an “out-of the-ordinary decline in the number of inmates.” However, when comparing the Swedish and U.S. social infrastructure, it becomes evident that the unusual decline is actually the predictable outcome for a country that has a very different approach to social structures.

The ‘Why’ Behind Crime 

We often neglect to ask why crime exists. Why do people abuse and sell drugs, steal or commit burglary, or even commit murder? We treat crime as inevitable! However, crimes do not occur in a vacuum, but rather are interconnected to the overall social structure.

While Sweden is far from perfect, the structural foundations that contribute to crime in the U.S. are less pronounced in the democratic-socialist ideology of Sweden.

Even though Swedish citizens pay higher taxes, they enjoy a strong welfare system for those in need as well as universal healthcare. Arguably more importantly, free higher education incubates the opportunities for those who were not born with money while also building a skilled workforce.

But in the U.S., a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED) shows that more than 40 percent of young people coming from “low educational backgrounds have not completed upper secondary education, and less than 20% have attained tertiary qualifications.” Consequently, the cost of a ticket out of poverty continues to be out of reach for many people as the price of education continues to skyrocket, rising more than 500 percent since 1985.

Meanwhile, wages in the U.S. have stagnated for years while union membership has dwindled (minimum wage does not exist in Sweden as unions have a strong reputation for advocating for their workers.) Income inequality has reached an all-time high, while social mobility seems to only exist in theory for the majority of Americans. And the top percentage of Americans continue to enjoy limitless prosperity.

Sweden and the U.S. address crime differently in the same ways that they address most public issues. While Sweden operates from an interdependent ideology that citizens will be accountable to and accountable for each other, the U.S.’s independent ideology expects individuals to overcome rigid structural barriers on their own.

Crime Is the Consequence, Not the Cause 

While Sweden is shuttering prisons, the U.S. is currently struggling with overcrowded prisons — an ironic, but undoubtedly desired fate for those who are profiting from it (an issue that needs more study on its own).

The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world with more than 700 inmates per 100,000 people. Compare this to the rate in Sweden, which is about 50 inmates per 100,000 people. So, while the U.S. currently incarcerates more than 2 million people, Sweden only houses approximately 4,500 inmates.

Undoubtedly, the “tough on crime” movement or “war on drugs” initiated by the Nixon administration breathed life into mass incarceration for all the wrong reasons. Consequently, since the 1970s, the prison population grew by 700 percent with poor, black and brown citizens as the primary targets. And today more than $80 billion of taxpayer money is used to lock up thousands of nonviolent offenders in prison for life.

Since 1975, Sweden’s convictions have decreased by more than 50 percent, and in 2012 only 9 percent of all convictions carried a prison sentence: the most common sentence being a maximum of two months. The focus on rehabilitation and prevention for any crime in Sweden is evident even in the humane way prisons are operated:

 “During the time I have been in prison so far (almost three months when writing this) I have not been met by even a harsh word, threat or any physical abuse whatsoever….The heaviest weapon the guards carry is a pepper spray….The guards invite us many times a week to jogging, indoor hockey, beach volleyball and soccer. We also play badminton, table tennis and tennis.” A former inmate’s of a Swedish prison.

But as previously noticed, the success behind Sweden’s incarceration rate has more to do with the social support system and not only how they approach crime.

As Harvard sociologist Bruce Western points out in Punishment and Inequality in America, “the broad significance of the penal system for American social inequality results from extreme social and economic disparities in incarceration.”

The majority of U.S. inmates come from a low socio-economic background and segregated communities, have not attained a higher education, and struggle with mental health and/or other health and substance abuse issues. And once they are released from prison, they return to the same environment, with no adequate tools to change their lives.

But that’s exactly the predicted outcome in a country that spends more money on maintaining and building prisons than solving certain societal issues. This explains why new bills such as the ‘Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013,’ are even considered part of addressing “mass incarceration.”

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Unfortunately, we can’t expect the leaders of this country to be solely responsible for making the necessary changes. Until Americans begin to envision themselves as interconnected and not be blinded by false ideologies such ‘Individualism,’ the social fibers of institutions will be at conflict with its citizens.

In the end, ask yourself who really benefits from a divided citizenry? Unfortunately, up until now, it seems to be only politicians and corporations that are benefiting at the expense of a divided citizenry.

Muna Adem 

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