FARGO — When Karianne Jackson visited a Norwegian prison a couple of years ago, the North Dakota prison system official thought all she’d learn was how to make a prison look like Ikea.
Photos of Halden Prison, the maximum-security prison 70 miles south of Oslo she visited, did make it look like it was furnished by the Scandinavian home furnishing store.
The cells looked like dorms rooms and the kitchen shared by inmates looked like it belonged in an apartment.
But that was the point, Jackson told an audience at the ReThink Mental Health Summit here Wednesday, Feb. 8. The Norwegian prison system was set up to prepare inmates to live as a normal member of society when they are released, she said.
The Norwegians she met, from prison officials to private citizens encountered in town, told her, “One day they're going to be your neighbor. What do you want? Happy neighbor or angry neighbor?”
Jackson said she had been confident the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was doing the right thing using “scientific” methods to manage inmates. But she said she found herself embarrassed by how much she had to learn from the Norwegians.
Rory Biel, project manager of Cass and Clay counties’ ReThink Mental Health initiative, said he invited Jackson to speak because he felt her message of “treating humans like humans and not labeling” would resonate with the audience, which included mental health professionals, school officials and members of the community who care about the issue.
Jackson, a tall, exuberant woman who was once a training manager for Sephora, is the director of correctional practices. But she defied that very serious title with the comic delivery of her presentation, peppered with how-dumb-am-I asides and impressions of Norwegian waitresses and prison guards.
Like correctional systems around the U.S., North Dakota’s has a problem actually correcting the criminal behavior of inmates, she said. “What other business stays in business where they do not do what they say they do? If I was a car manufacturer, I would not be in business long letting a three-wheeled Honda go off my back lot.”
The state prison in Bismarck struggles with a growing inmate population, she said, and a maximum-security wing added in 2012 was filled within a year.
Leann Bertsch, director of the prison system, has said the state can’t build itself out of the problem.
The impetus for the October 2015 trip to Halden Prison was a grant from the Prison Law Office, a California-based group that pushes for prison reforms. The group’s traditional means of doing so is filing lawsuits, but with the Norwegian prison tour, it hoped to show criminal justice officials model prison systems they could learn from. North Dakota and Hawaii officials were on the inaugural tour, but officials from several other states have since taken the tour, including Idaho and Colorado.
“It was the best trip of my life that wish I would never have taken,” she said. “I finally saw something that worked and it was too hard to ignore and come back and keep doing what we're doing.”
Students of life
Inmates at Halden Prison still have their freedom taken away, but they otherwise live life as they would on the outside, Jackson said. Inmates are encouraged to leave their dorms during the day. They can work in a garden, do the laundry or cook. They can go to work or take classes.
Prison guards at Halden Prison treat inmates like students rather than prisoners.
For example, the guards don’t demand respect before showing respect, because they are teaching the inmates by example how to be respectful, she said. They befriend inmates, she said, because it’s easier to change people when you’re their friend.
Since the 2015 tour, North Dakota’s prison system has begun implementing some changes in the spirit of what was learned in Norway rather than replicating a Norwegian prison.
For example, Jackson said, the prison system has reduced the number of maximum-security inmates in solitary confinement at any one time. Minimum-security inmates start wearing street clothes before their release and are allowed out of prison to be in the community, she said.
While it might be too early to see the results in the data — and it might be difficult to prove cause and effect — prison staff members have already seen a positive change in the attitude of inmates, she said.