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Pennsylvania Looks To Scandinavia For Lessons On Prison Conditions

Marc Levy

Pennsylvania corrections secretary John Wetzel remembers that when he toured prisons in Germany and the Netherlands several years ago, it was a “transformative experience.”

“The culture and environment they were able to create inside their prisons were something that I never had seen or experienced before,” he said. “And at the time, I had well over 25 years of experience and toured literally hundreds of facilities here in America.”

More than a dozen Pennsylvania prison staff will soon see the difference for themselves, as part of a research trip to Sweden and Norway this summer. Last week, the department announced it had received a grant to complete the research from the Arnold Ventures foundation, which funds criminal justice reform efforts across the country. The grant totals more than $163,000.

From his earlier trip, Wetzel recalled that German and Dutch prisoners faced less crowded conditions than do American inmates. And he said prison guards in those host countries played more of a mentoring role than they do in the U.S., and that they each were assigned fewer inmates.

Wetzel said shifting in that direction would “redefine” the role of corrections officers in the U.S. and could be expensive. But he noted that a declining prison population helps to cut costs over the long term.

“I think some of the questions are, 'Is there a way that we can significantly reduce population so we can, at the same time, improve conditions for those who work and live inside our prisons?'” he said.

Scandinavian inmates are far less likely to return to prison after release.

“So the theory is that European corrections, Scandinavian corrections [are] far superior to American corrections,” Wetzel said. “But I think that it’s important that we measure outcomes, and we really test it.”

Wetzel said Pennsylvania corrections staff will test what they observe overseas at a prison unit in Delaware County. Inmates will be randomly assigned to the unit to see if the policies in place there make them less likely to reoffend.

The department will conduct the research in partnership with Drexel University in Philadelphia.

*This story was updated at 2:49 p.m. on Tuesday, May 28, 2019, to say Department of Corrections staff will test methods from Scandinavia in a prison unit in Delaware County. The story previously said the prison unit, at State Correctional Institution-Chester, was located in Chester County.