NEW YORK’S JAILS ARE FAILING!

ULLENSAKER, Norway — From the outside, Romerike Prison looks like many correctional facilities in the United States: barbed-wire fences, guard stations and inmate cells scattered across acres of land.

But inside is a different story.

Hard plastic windows allow prisoners to look outside. Contemporary artwork lines the hallways. And when prisoners are released — almost all of them will eventually be freed — a warden gives them his personal cellphone number. Call if you need help, he tells them.

In nearly every measurable way, the Norwegian correctional system is a radical departure from cold, harsh American prisons and jails. Yet those stark differences were exactly what led officials in New York City to travel recently to Norway.

For the first time in a century, the city is embarking on an ambitious plan to rebuild its jails, the second largest correctional system in the United States.

By 2026, four new jails in neighborhoods across New York have been proposed to replace those at Rikers Island, the notorious jail complex plagued by abuse and neglect that has come to symbolize a criminal justice system that ensnares black and Hispanic people in disproportionate numbers.

With the new jails, city officials want to reimagine not only physical features but also how they operate on the inside, creating an opportunity for New York City, supporters say, to become a national model of more humane incarceration.

“All of us feel, not just within the city but across the justice system, that we’re really at this kind of transformational moment,” said Elizabeth Glazer, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the city agency helping lead the project. “That sounds quite grandiose, but it feels very real.”

Leif Arne Røsand, a warden at Romerike Prison, in a room used to house prisoners with drug problems. 
Leif Arne Røsand, a warden at Romerike Prison, in a room used to house prisoners with drug problems. Credit…David B. Torch for The New York Times
Romerike prisoners can play chess using large pieces. The Norwegian prison system has become an international model for more humane treatment of inmates.
Romerike prisoners can play chess using large pieces. The Norwegian prison system has become an international model for more humane treatment of inmates.Credit…David B. Torch for The New York Times

The City Council approved the $8 billion jails plan in October, but essential questions remain. What should modern jails look like? How should they fit into neighborhoods? What is the role of a correction officer?

In recent months, city officials have set out to find answers, touring facilities across the United States and in Europe. In late September, they touched down in a place far different from New York: Norway, a welfare state with a low crime rate whose population is fairly homogeneous and smaller than New York’s.

New York and Norway also have other significant differences that raise questions about how the country’s practices can be applied in a large urban setting. The city’s new jails will be in the middle of densely populated neighborhoods, while most facilities in Norway are in rural settings. In 2018, Norway had 26 homicides — about how many New York City averages every month.

Most notably, Norway has a broad social safety net, including generous education benefits and pensions, which helps prisoners both while in prison and after their release. Inmates receive a daily allowance of about $7.60, which they can save or spend at the commissary.

Still, its incarceration system has become a model worldwide.

One stop was Halden Prison, tucked among birch and pine trees about an hour’s drive south of Oslo. It has about 200 inmates, roughly half of whom were convicted of violent crimes, including murder, rape and assault.

Inside the perimeter of 25-foot-tall smooth concrete barriers, inmates can wear their own clothing and have some freedom to move around the grounds alone. It is eerily quiet — no sounds of slamming metal doors or dangling key chains or shouting inmates and officers.

It is often considered the world’s most humane maximum-security prison.

“Halden is in this extraordinarily beautiful, rural setting, and that’s obviously not New York City,” said Ms. Glazer, who toured the property with one of the prison’s architects. “But there are elements of what’s in Halden that you can find anywhere: the openness of light, the effect of air coming through.”

Later in the weeklong visit, the team, which also included criminal justice advocates, visited Romerike, a high-security prison about 65 miles north of Halden in a town of about 39,000 people.

Tunnels connect prison cells to a cafeteria and a recreation area, allowing inmates to move without officers by their sides. Inmates can decorate their cells with personal items.

There are workshops with wood milling machines, a gym, a stocked kitchen for cooking classes and a library.

Perhaps the most startling difference, though, is the relationship between officers and inmates.

Every officer is assigned to about five or six inmates, compared with about 50 prisoners for every officer in New York. In Norway, officers socialize with them over meals and prepare them for life after their release. In fact, when inmates leave they must have a place to live and be enrolled in school or have found a job.

That connection, one Romerike guard told the group from New York, made them “kind of friends” — a remark that startled some visitors.

Prisoners at Romerike can check out books, CDs, DVDs and video games from the prison’s library.
Prisoners at Romerike can check out books, CDs, DVDs and video games from the prison’s library.Credit…David B. Torch for The New York Times
The Romerike prison shop features many items that would be found in a Norwegian grocery store.
The Romerike prison shop features many items that would be found in a Norwegian grocery store.Credit…David B. Torch for The New York Times

In an interview, Leif Arne Rosand, a warden at Romerike, said the officer’s comment had been lost in translation, but acknowledged that the way guards open up to inmates might seem unusual to Americans.

It is called “dynamic security,” a theory that interpersonal relationships among officers and inmates help promote safety. Mr. Rosand offered an example: “If you’re in dialogue with a group where the role of being a father is discussed, you need to tell them you are a father, too,” he said.

During a walk through the prison yard, Mr. Rosand came across one of Romerike’s better-known inmates. He had been convicted of drug-related charges and spent time in a prison in Lithuania. Prison officials asked that his name be withheld because he had not given consent to an interview.

“I am dead tired of being here,” the man told Mr. Rosand, laughing. But he added that the prison was much nicer than the one in Lithuania, which he described with a profanity and added, “Six men per cell and rats.”

Brenda Cooke, the chief of staff at New York City’s Department of Corrections who also traveled to Norway, said officers in New York already got to know inmates, though on a limited basis.

“The difference was that connection between the relationship of understanding the person who was with us in custody and then how you can support, direct help and shape their opportunity once they’re released,” Ms. Cooke said.

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