Justice, but not as we know it
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Justice, but not as we know it

Issues/Policy , Issues/Human Rights , Stories/218
Women's Justice Network, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
5th Jan 2018
Justice, but not as we know it
Why not extend our love of Scandinavian minimalism to the minimal prison, the minimal curtailing of rights?

The rise and rise of Scandi-chic has been well-documented. It's the polished wood interiors of your neighbourhood coffee pit-stop. It's pastel hues, lean smock dresses, clean lines and just-curved chair backs. Hygge died in the popular zeitgeist, I think, but people talked about it for an awfully long time. Practical, comfortable, minimalist. If only the Scandinavian take on the world spilled over from cafe interiors into our conception of justice.

Finland has had open prisons since the 1930s. There are no uniforms or locked cells. Prisoners come and go, not quite as they please, but with significantly less curtailments on their time and what they do with it than you would expect for a those who have been convicted of committing serious crimes. In Kerava, Finland, the inmates work at a greenhouse. Suomenlinna Island, which is also a popular tourist attraction near the capital, has been home to an open prison since 1971. There are only picket fences separating the prisons from the town. Prisoners are free to live their lives in society but live at the prison. And, an unexpected but welcome perk: open prisons cost less, with the need for security personnel and other measures reduced dramatically.

Justice has its roots in the Latin iustitia, which means "righteousness or equity". The word can also possibly be traced back to the wordjowos, from the Proto-Italic, meaning quite literally "sacred formula." So how did sacred formulas and righteousness get us here? Justice in the criminal, legal sense of the word in so far as it relates to punishment does not seem just or equitable.

We can see this not only in the fact that prison sentences create more recidivist offenders than ever, but in the inequity of those who the prison system targets: the poor, the destitute, the Indigenous. Imprisonment has shown time and time again to increase rates of crime in those imprisoned, and do little to target the structural inequality that breeds crime in the first place. Open prisons are a way of allowing prisoners to serve out at least parts of their sentence in an environment which allows re-integration back to society and normalcy.

In the 50s Finland went through a period of "decarceration" during which Finland's Criminal Sanctions Agency reports that crime did not increase. In fact, they state that those who move through the open prison system are less likely to reoffend. The Norwegian Correctional Service website's puts forward its simple philosophy: "The punishment is the restriction of liberty; no other rights have been removed by the sentencing court." The stated aims reveal a system where there is no added punitiveness, no insult to injury. While a prisoner serves his or her sentence, "life inside will resemble life outside as much as possible." Normality, or the semblance of it, in order to reintegrate more smoothly into life as a free person.

However, the reasoning behind imprisonment is of course only partly to do with individual deterrence. There is also the element of general deterrence. But this is predicated on the assumption that before committing a crime, the would-be criminal stops to think to him or herself, "This is a crime. Repercussions exist for this crime. Robbing this store will land me in some serious hot water- a maximum of 10 years of hot water. Is that worth it?" As you can imagine, this weighing exercise is not always at the forefront of the mind.

Research has shown, time and time again that contrary to logic, punishment does not eliminate or even significantly reduce the commission of crime. In the 80's, Richard Wright was lecturing on criminal behaviour and tendencies in Minnesota. A student walked up to him afterwards, and said, "With all due respect, Sir- you have no idea what you're talking about". This student turned out to be a convicted criminal, and connected Wright to other known but not convicted criminals in his area which gave him this paper called "A Snowball's Chance in Hell: Doing Fieldwork with Active Residential Burglars." It shows that punishment and reduction of crime do not have the relational trajectory we expect them to. And it's brilliantly titled, so worth a read if just for that reason.

Deterrence is a persuasive influence in society and it is undeniable that there must be potential for consequences from criminal behaviour. But perhaps it could be done in a way which goes back to the roots of what justice means, in the equitable and just sense, rather than the retributive, eye-for-an-eye sense. Why stop our love affair with Scandinavia at light wood interiors and A-line smocks? Why not take a page from the books of minimalism in another sense? The minimal prison. The minimal curtailing of rights.

Sasha Aronson, who completed her Honours research on the impact of prison planning on offender rehabilitation, says that the majority of research points to prisons as incorporating an "architecture of incrimination", perpetuating wrongdoing, rather than mitigating it.

She is dubious as to whether prisons in Australia can evolve to fully incorporate core rehabilitative principles on account of their "traditional brutalist configuration." Contrastingly, the Scandinavian prison system's "move away from regressive-style imprisonment to the inclusion of healthy, positive and normative spaces has resulted in its ability to boast some of the lowest recidivism rates in the world."

According to Sasha, the Scandinavian system "successfully uses planning and design principles to plug the gap in the rehabilitative ability of existing correctional facilities."

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