Rehabilitation, not retribution

My research group has been spending a great deal of time recently discussing responsibility, especially in light of our neuroessentialist perspective.  The germ of the idea is this: everything that we do, every decision that we make is dependent upon the functioning of our brains. Moreover, the entire process is dependent upon the particular details of our brains’ neurochemistry, be it caused by our genetic heritage or our life experience. In fact, at the level of the synapse, the source of the neurochemical arrangement is probably irrelevant, and nature and nurture collapse into synaptic function. No voodoo. No mystery. Just chemistry.

We certainly recognize that such neuroessentialist thinking can be unnerving, and there is even data that suggests that such thinking can increase asocial behaviour (here and here). But a line of reasoning, best enunciated in Josh Greene and Jonathan Cohen’s highly influential paper on neuroscience and the law suggests that it is time to rethink our collective attitudes towards responsibility, especially when we think about how to deal with criminal behaviour. As David Eagleman suggests, perhaps it is time to use our impressive understanding of the human brain to find better ways to rehabilitate criminals rather than punish them.

It turns out that Norway is way ahead.

In a riveting article in Spiegel Online, Nicola Abé details the Norwegian ‘open prison’ system, using the island prison of Bastøy as an example. There are no cells, no handcuffs, and escape not really that difficult. There is a warden, and roll call several times a day. There is a ferry across the small channel that divides the island from the mainland; when one arrives on Bastøy, the first thing that you see is a sign that says “Bastøy, A Training Ground for Responsibility.” In keeping with this idea, the prisoners that serve their sentences there learn life skills, and have to work to put food on their plates and a roof over their heads. The recidivism rate for Bastøy’s ‘graduates’ is 20% lower than Norway as a whole.  Oh yes, and in Norway, about a third of prisons are open prisons like Bastøy. So if anything, these statistics underestimate the magnitude of the effect.

The prisoners must apply to get into Bastøy, but the population is hardly akin to the kind of white-collar criminals that populate Club Fed in the USA; Bastøy boasts a white-supremacist doing time for murder, drug dealers, and even a famous art thief who stole Edvard Munch’s iconic painting the Scream from an art museum.

The warden, Arne Nilsen, happens to be a psychologist. His attitude towards prisons is worth considering, especially when he says,

“Locking people up doesn’t do any good, because you can’t lock people up forever in a liberal democracy. Reintegration is the important part, not punishment.”

“On Bastøy, everyone has to learn to handle his freedom and set his own boundaries,” says Nilsen, “which is what they have to do outside, too.”

It is probably too soon to know if this approach towards rehabilitation will be productive, and it is well-known that the social structure in Norway is different than many other places (the Legatum Prosperity Index, an independent assessment of wealth and wellbeing, ranks Norway at the top of the world’s countries). Nonetheless, the open prison movement in Norway does seem to be a situation that begs for  some whip smart social psychologists to harness the power of modern science in pursuit of a solution which is at once more effective and more humane than what goes on in most prisons today. There is a great Ph.D. thesis out there just waiting to be hatched.

Hat tip to Thomas Nadelhoffer over at Flickers of Freedom