While other prisons in Europe are overcrowded the Swedish prison model focuses on rehabilitation of inmates
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    While other prisons in Europe are overcrowded the Swedish prison model focuses on rehabilitation of inmates

    Overcrowding in European prisons remains a problem in one fourth of the prison administrations in the countries belonging to the Council of Europe. The countries with the most crowded penal institutions are Hungary, Belgium, Macedonia, Greece, Albania, Italy, Spain, Slovenia, France, Portugal, Serbia, Romania and Austria.

    The prison systems and their conditions in EU were discussed recently (9 February) at a hearing in the European parliament arranged by the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. The Parliament has expressed concerns about the prison conditions in some EU member states.

    The hearing wanted to draw the attention to the national prison systems – an often forgotten topic – by highlighting both bad and good examples. 

    On the positive side the prison population in EU has decreased in recent years but there are still over a half a million persons in prisons and custody. That makes about 100 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants – a figure far away from the incarceration rate in e.g. the US where it reaches about 700 inmates per 100,000, the highest in the world.

    Rapporteur Joelle Bergeron described the prisons’ systems conditions in the EU as a huge topic. Currently conditions vary widely across member states. She mentioned problems such as overcrowding, violence and suicides among inmates.

    Referring to best practices in penitentiary management she said that Sweden might be a model for other countries. The incarceration rate in Sweden is only 55 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. “We need to focus on the rights of those in prison.”

    The current recommendations on good prison standards – the European Prison and Probation Rules issued by the Council of Europe – go some way in influencing member states to improve the conditions, especially together with monitoring mechanisms. However, the question if it was time for a binding European Prison Charter was raised at the hearing.

    The total annual costs for managing the prisons in Europe are estimated to € 27 billion. The average cost per day and inmate is almost € 100 with large variation across countries.

    Prison conditions in Sweden

    Lars Widholm, a Swedish prison director with 30 years of experience, said at the hearing that there is no overcrowding in Swedish prisons. The reoffending rate has decreased significantly in recent years, and alternatives to prison sentences such as electronic ankle bracelets, conditional prison sentences and probation are often applied.

    Inmates are normally released after having served two thirds of the sentence.

    “The most important objective in Sweden is to reduce the risk of relapse to crime (recidivism) by using individual sentence plans and reintegration programmes and enable inmates to work or study.  Being sentenced to prison and deprived one’s freedom is punishment enough. We don´t want to add more punishment by inhuman treatment in the prisons.”

    Asked by The Brussels Times if Sweden would support a binding European Prison Charter, he replied that for the time being there is no need for further regulation besides the existing international and European prison standards.

    “We are far from any harmonization of rules today. The most effective thing to do would probably be to focus on the implementation of these rules with support from different countries.”

    The management of prisons is a basic public function but a topic often discussed, in view of the costs, is outsourcing the management to private companies.

    “We believe that basically it’s up to the state to guarantee fundamental rights and execute the sentences handed down by the courts,“ replies Widholm. “That doesn’t exclude close cooperation with other actors, both public and private, when it comes to channeling the inmates into society and rehabilitate them. Private companies can also provide certain services to the prisons.”

    The Swedish prison administration seems to work well but a full evaluation would require a look at the whole judiciary chain from police investigations of crimes and the application of the penalty system by the courts. The pre-trial system (remand in custody) for example has been criticized for isolating detainees.

    The police force was subject to a major, and disputed, reorganization in 2015 which has affected its work. The aim was to better tackle serious crime by centralizing the regional organization. It is probably too early to assess if the reorganization has achieved its aim.

    Widholm replies that decreasing recidivism and occupancy in prisons depends on several factors besides the preventive work carried out by the prison administration. “The fact that we have fewer inmates is also the result of how many crimes are solved and which penalties are meted out by the courts.”

     “While the number of inmates has decreased the sentences for violent crimes have become longer and those for drug offences shorter,” Widholm says.

    He also admits that there are remaining challenges, such as breaking the isolation of detainees in custody, following a decision by a prosecutor. Gang-related crime in the suburbs is also a growing problem. “We haven’t made any specific follow-up of gang members who have been released from prison and it’s difficult to work in a preventive way with them.”

    Widholm thinks that a cautious approach is required when trying to “copy” the system in one country to other countries with different legal background and culture. That said, good examples and best practices should be studied to see if they fit into other countries. “We believe that parts of the ‘Swedish model’ could be copied but surely not blindly.”

    ”What is common for all prisons, irrespective of country, is that a professional and good contact between wardens and inmates is crucial. Our starting point is the individual, with an individual sentence plan based on the prisoner’s risks and needs. Furthermore, a dynamic security approach not only based on technical solutions but also on a well-developed placing strategy, intelligence work and staff that are present among the inmates is important and could be implemented in other countries.”

    European Prison Rules – some examples

    ·        All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with respect for their human rights.

    ·        Persons deprived of their liberty retain all rights that are not lawfully taken away by the decision sentencing them or remanding them in custody.

    ·        Prison conditions that infringe prisoners’ human rights are not justified by lack of resources.

    ·        Life in prison shall approximate as closely as possible the positive aspects of life in the community.

    ·        All detention shall be managed so as to facilitate the reintegration into free society of persons who have been deprived of their liberty.


    M. Apelblat

    The Brussels Times