Greetings, Although most people’s idea of a fun-filled vacation would probably not include a trip to a maximum- security prison, for me and Charlie, our tour of the Vridsloselille Penitentiary, in Albertslund, Denmark, was one of the highlights of our European trip. Our friends Kim and Isabella who were kind enough to put us up in their beautiful country home, were also able to accommodate our request to get us a first- hand experience of the Danish penal system by arranging for a private tour of the country’s oldest and largest prison. We should add that government bureaucracy in Denmark isn’t any easier to navigate one’s way through than it is in this country and setting up the tour took a considerable amount of time, energy, perseverance and PATIENCE.
We didn’t actually get the official OK for our tour until after we arrived in Denmark, and only after several weeks in which Kim and Isabella made numerous phone calls, filled out forms and submitted responses to extensive security questionnaires. Much to our delight and surprise, we eventually did get the go- ahead. For several years Charlie and I have corresponded with and visited prisoners in the Louisiana State Prison in Angola, Louisiana. Charlie has visited one of the inmates there on several occasions. These relationships originally began as a result of a friend’s experience in participating in a religious retreat in the prison.
He returned from the weekend with several letters each of which were written by inmates who wished to have correspondence with people on the “outside”. Most of the prisoners in Angola are there for very long stretches and many will die there. For those of you who wish to see the actual conditions of Angola you can rent or purchase the video The Farm. The first trip to Angola that we made several years ago was with a group of about twenty people and was organized by the same friend who attended the retreat. One of the participants of that tour was a young exchange student from Denmark who was spending his senior year of college at Louisiana State University.
He told us that he had seen the inside of prisons in Denmark and he remarked that they were quite different than what we were observing. “The prisons in Denmark aren’t exactly hotels”, he said in near-perfect English, “but the prisoners have adequate, even somewhat comfortable living quarters, and there is a stronger emphasis upon learning social and work skills, than there is on punishment”. He went on to describe some of the other differences in the facilities and both Charlie and I were left feeling very curious and hopeful that one day we might get to see a Danish prison ourselves. Our wish came true on June 1 when after borrowing Kim’s car and negotiating the Danish roads, we found our way to Albertslund.
After going through security (which was surprisingly minimal) and entering into the main part of the prison, we were greeted by a young female correction officer, “Katrina” who told us that she would be taking us around the prison and offered to answer any of our questions. She was friendly and engaging, with a great sense of humor. In a few minutes, it felt like we were with an old friend. Although Vridsloselille is the largest penitentiary in Denmark, it currently houses only 200 prisoners and has a capacity of 249.
Most American prisons are operating at full capacity with many housing considerably more prisoners than they were designed for. Only the officers on the isolation wing of the prison carry weapons and they are nightsticks. None of the officers anywhere in the prison carry firearms. We were allowed to view several cells from both inside and the outside. The inmates live one man to a cell. The cells are small but not tiny, with most of them outfitted with a table and chair, bookshelves, a TV, stereo (headphones required), small refrigerator, washbasin and toilet. Although there are bars on the windows, there is a regular door that opens into the cell. The prison has a full-equipped gym and workout room that inmates are free to use whenever they have free time. They can shower as frequently as they wish.
The prison chapel doubles as a music room and there is a prison band and chorus that has recorded and sold several different CD’s. The band occasionally plays at venues outside of the prison. Katrina informed us that since one of the main objectives of the prison is to have the inmates become productive responsible citizens, they are given a much wider range of responsibilities than inmates in most American prisons. The prison does not provide meals for the inmates. They are required to purchase the food they eat and to prepare it themselves in one of the communal kitchens, which are located throughout the prison. There are also communal refrigerators and stoves on which to prepare meals and dining areas in which eat together. “What about the inmates who don’t know how to cook?” we asked Katrina. “They learn”, she responded.
We also got to view the grocery store where the inmates shop. It’s a combination convenience store and mini- supermarket, minus the beer of course. Inmates are also responsible for laundering their own clothes which they can do in one of the prison laundromats. All of the prisoners are required to have jobs and they get paid enough money to cover their expenses and then some. Wages for the inmates range from $1.35- $2.55 an hour. While inmates in American prisons generally get compensated for the work that they do, their pay is usually extremely low, sometimes not more than a few pennies an hour.
Denmark has a much lower rate of incarceration than the United States and one of the contributing factors to this discrepancy is the fact that while Denmark sends offenders to mental health facilities, clinics and hospitals if they have psychiatric problems, in the USA, many inmates who need psychiatric treatment are housed in prisons since so many mental health facilities have been closed or had their funding severely restricted since the 1970’s. Katrina told us that very few of the inmates are on medication of any kind and if they are disturbed enough to need it, they are assigned to a hospital until they are healthy enough to return to prison.
Inmates with substance abuse addictions can participate in an in-house rehablitation program where they receive comprehensive treatment which includes Psychotherapy, education, impulse control, anger management, group therapy, social skill building and AA meetings. These inmates are housed in a separate unit and unlike the rest of the population are not required to hold jobs while in the program. According to a counselor with whom we spoke, the program is itself a full-time job, and is very demanding.
Prisoners who are not serious about their recovery or insufficiently committed are put back in the general population. Charlie and I were able to meet and personally speak with several of the inmates (nearly all of whom spoke remarkably fluent English) in the prison. Overall they did not look particularly depressed, disturbed, or dangerous. They didn’t express many complaints about the conditions in the prison although they were all looking forward to being released. While they don’t seem to be especially unhappy, life in prison, even in Denmark is no picnic.
No matter how many electronic gadgets you own, you’re still living in a cell and life without freedom is itself a serious form of punishment. One of the things that alleviates some of the oppressiveness of living in prison are visits from friends and families. These visits are only minimally restrictive in terms of duration and frequency with which they are allowed. The visiting rooms are private and visitors can spend up to several hours at a time with inmates. The doors can be locked from the inside and privacy is respected. When a lover or wife visits, intimate contact is allowed.
Because the prison is located near Copenhagen, Denmark’s largest city, most of the visitors do not live particularly far from the prison and can visit once a week or more often if they wish. One of the inmates that we met was a young man, aged twenty-three who admitted to us that when he was nineteen, he had killed a man while under the influence of drugs. This was an isolated incident, but of course, a profoundly serious one that has had severe consequences for many people. He was remorseful about his crime and told us that he was looking forward to his release in six more years and that he hoped to become an engineer and live the rest of his life in a way that would atone for the crime that he had committed. He is currently serving a ten-year sentence.
Denmark as well as all other European countries does not have a death penalty and hasn’t executed anyone since the end of World War II. Rarely is anyone ever sentenced to life in prison. There are currently only 16 men serving life sentences in the whole country. The younger the age of the offender, the shorter his sentence. For example, if a nineteen year old commits a murder, he will be given a ten- year sentence. An eighteen year old will generally get 5 years. While Denmark has a rate of incarceration of 59 people per 100,000 in it’s population of 5,300,000, the United States has a rate of 686 per 100,000, the highest in the world.
Although less than 5% of the world’s population lives in America, our country has 25% of the world’s incarcerated prisoners. One might be inclined to ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?” There is of course no simple or easy answer to this question, although it appears as though we might have something to learn from Denmark as well as other countries whose orientation towards crime and punishment is geared more towards promoting responsibility and respect rather that being geared primarily towards punishment. Sending angry, frightened, wounded and hopeless men back into the world after years of punishment is unlikely to result in a safer and more productive society. Maybe it’s time to consider something different for a change.