A Cozier Carceral State

Scandinavia is less brutal than the United States. But we can do better than its prison state.

A mural at Halden, a Norwegian high-security facility that's been called the "World's Most Humane Prison." Trond Isaksen / Statsbygg

Once upon a time, the Swedes taught Americans how to have good sex, make great films, and build socialism. Not anymore:

Four vacationing Swedish police officers helped out after two homeless men began fighting on a New York City subway — and showed it’s possible to subdue violent suspects without hurting them. The officers — Samuel Kvarzell, Markus Asberg, Eric Jansberger and Erik Naslund — were riding an uptown No. 6 train Wednesday on their way to see “Les Miserables” when they responded to the subway driver’s call for help, reported the New York Post.

A bystander began recording cell phone video after the officers pulled the pair apart. The video shows one of the brawlers sitting calmly on the floor, flanked by two of the Swedish police officers, while two others kneel on the other man — who is more unruly — to hold him face-down on the floor.

“How do you feel?” one of the officers asks the seated man, who says he feels fine. The other man struggles, but the pair of officers calmly keep him pinned to the floor. “I can’t breathe,” he screams, as he rises occasionally from the floor but is unable to escape.

“Take it easy,” one officer repeatedly tells him. “Sir, calm down, OK? Everything is going to be OK.” The man eventually calms down, and he admits to the officers that he’s not injured after they ask.

The Swedish officers held the men until New York City police could board the train and take them into custody. “We came just to make sure no one got hurt,” Asberg said. “We were trying to stop the fight.”

Of course, not every police interaction ends with a suspect’s death or injury — but social media users pointed out the difference between the way the Swedish officers behaved and recent tragic cases involving American police.

This Raw Story piece reminded me of an article in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago. “The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison” profiled a maximum-security prison in Norway. After opening with a breathtaking account of her drive up to the prison — replete with narrow fjords, winding roads, and lush fields of rapeseed, barley, and cows — the reporter explained why we were bearing witness to all this splendor in the Nordic grass:

I walked up the quiet driveway to the entrance and presented myself to a camera at the main door. There were no coils of razor wire in sight, no lethal electric fences, no towers manned by snipers — nothing violent, threatening or dangerous. And yet no prisoner has ever tried to escape. I rang the intercom, the lock disengaged with a click and I stepped inside.

To anyone familiar with the American correctional system, Halden seems alien. Its modern, cheerful and well-­appointed facilities, the relative freedom of movement it offers, its quiet and peaceful atmosphere — these qualities are so out of sync with the forms of imprisonment found in the United States that you could be forgiven for doubting whether Halden is a prison at all. It is, of course, but it is also something more: the physical expression of an entire national philosophy about the relative merits of punishment and forgiveness. . . .

As we stood on a ridge, along with Jan Stromnes, the assistant warden, it was silent but for the chirping of birds and insects and a hoarse fluttering of birch leaves disturbed by the breeze. The prison is secluded from the surrounding farmland by the blueberry woods . . .

You get the idea. American prisons are profoundly unnatural, Norwegian prisons are as pastoral and peaceful as the countryside that surrounds them.

The two articles seem to be part of a pattern I’ve noticed of late in which Scandinavia is held up as a model for better policing and better prisons. (Okay, it’s just two articles, but in the Styles Section, that makes a trend.)

Given the casual sadism of the American system of crime and punishment — from prisons to policing — it probably seems churlish to even question the import of these articles. Anything that would make our hellholes just a little bit less of hellish, our police a little less murderous, has to be welcomed. Still, I can’t help but think that, overall, these articles signify a larger setback to the social imagination.

Fifty years ago, we looked to Scandinavia as a model of social democracy, of how we might push our laggard welfare state to something more generous and capacious than food stamps, unemployment, intrusive case officers, and miserly payments to mothers with dependent children. Now we look to the region for ways to build a more humane carceral state.

As the Times Magazine puts it, “The extravagant brutality of the American approach to prisons is not working, and so it might just be worth looking for lessons at the opposite extreme, here in a sea of blabaerskog, or blueberry forest.”

Or we marvel over how cozy (Les Miz!) Scandinavian police officers — who are not just white, but Swedish white — can be when they subdue black men in New York’s subways.

By all means, let us borrow our social lyric from Scandinavia. But, please, let it be “Dancing Queen” rather than the last scenes of Miss Julie.