Oregon corrections officers head to Norway

Seven officers from the Oregon Department of Corrections will live and work with their counterparts in Norway to learn about that country's effective criminal justice system.

Oregon corrections officers will be first in the nation to participate in a professional exchange program in Norway — a country that transformed its violent prisons into one of the most rehabilitative systems in the world.

As part of the exchange, seven officers from the Oregon Department of Corrections will live with one of their Norwegian counterparts in Oslo Sept. 12-21 and work alongside them in a Norwegian prison.

“I want to see criminal justice through the lens of Norway and see the resources they utilize and a better way to manage the population,” said

Toby Tooley, an Oregon State Police correctional captain at the Oregon State Penitentiary and a participant in the exchange.

The United States incarcerates 665 out of every 100,000 people, compared with 74 per 100,000 in Norway, according to the most recent figures from the World Prison Brief.

The states that are leading criminal justice reform to reduce the prison population are largely conservative and led by Republicans “mostly because the budgets of departments of corrections all over this country were exploding,” said Oregon Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, who has been involved in criminal justice reform in this state.

More importantly, the recidivism rate among those who have been incarcerated in Norway is about half of Oregon’s. At about 30 percent, Oregon’s recidivism rate — defined as a new felony conviction within three years of release — is less than half of the national rate of nearly 68 percent.

The state criminal justice reform was a major reason Oregon was selected for the exchange, said Brie Williams, director of the Criminal Justice & Health Program at University of California San Francisco.

After the two-week immersion, program leaders will work with Oregon participants for the following year to make changes at DOC based on their experiences and approaches used in Norway.

Next year, Oregon will host Norwegian corrections officers at DOC institutions.

State lawmakers have spent tens of millions of dollars on “justice reinvestment” grants in the past five years. The grant money goes to counties for housing, treatment and other support services that help keep offenders out of prison.

An article in The Economist once described the Norwegian prison system as “plush and unusual punishment.”

After multiple murders within its prisons, Norwegian policymakers in the mid ‘90s began rethinking how they treated inmates.

“They came out with a philosophy around the criminal justice system where the question that is always asked is ‘Will this make this person a better neighbor?’ recognizing just like Oregon that well over 90 percent of people in the criminal justice system will come out and will be our neighbors,” Williamson said.

Williamson and Oregon Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, were part of a delegation of state and DOC officials who visited the Norwegian prison system about a year ago. The trip was sponsored by the Prison Law Office of Berkley and the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

The Norwegian prison system is a hybrid of security and social work, Winters said.

“The inmates are provided with the tools and there is the expectation that they can become responsible and become a good neighbor,” Winters said.

Inmates are expected to study and work. They can earn advanced degrees while still in prison. They then have the chance to work for a year in any discipline in which they have received training.

“As much real life as you can possibly can have exists in the Norway system,” Winters said.

Beyond education, the purpose of the trip Sept. 11-21 is to foster buy-in from corrections officers for some of the reforms that state officials want to replicate in Oregon, said Heidi Steward, assistant director for corrections services for Oregon DOC. The corrections officers will focus on how Norway handles inmates with mental and behavioral disorders.

Delegations from other states, including North Dakota and Alaska, also have visited Norway to see its prison system, but Oregon is the first state to send its officers on an exchange in which they will live in the community and work in a Norwegian prison.

In addition to the seven corrections officers, seven administrative staff from DOC will go on the trip.

The exchange program is funded with grants from the Jacob & Valerie Langeloth Foundation — administered by University of California, San Francisco — and $20,000 from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.


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