Prison reform is coming to Pennsylvania The state

Chester, Pennsylvania – Two years ago, several inmates from the Chester State Correctional Institution moved to a renovated cell unit called Little Scandinavia.

Equipped with a kitchen, upholstered furniture, aquarium and air hockey tables, the unit has been redesigned to more resemble life outside the prison gates. Prisoners can buy fresh food in a store similar to a commissar’s, cook it on the stove or in the oven using real utensils and sit down with the guards.

It is part of a pilot project launched by the State Penitentiary Department to shift the current model of imprisonment towards a more humane model based on the Scandinavian prison system.

In a sense, this is a radical change, both for the cell block and for the culture at SCI Chester, said George Little, acting secretary of the State Penitentiary Department. However, in many other respects the change is fully in line with the basic principles of his department, he told the crowd at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Little Scandinavia last month.

“We’re doing correctional work,” Little said. “But if we really offer an opportunity for change, it has to be real, and that’s another step in that direction.”

Visit to Norway

Led by former head of correctional facilities John Wetzel, in 2019 a group of officers and officials of correctional facilities traveled to Norway to see how Scandinavian prison systems work.

Correctional Officer Turquoise Denford worked with staff in a Norwegian prison for three weeks and was surprised to see the guards quietly waking the prisoners with a gentle “Good Morning” greeting.

“That part stayed with me,” she said. “I understand the rationale for this. It sets the tone for the rest of the day. You’ll be nice, you’re going to move through the rest of the day differently.”

More attention in the program will be focused on helping prisoners return to society after imprisonment and preventing their return.

The U.S. has a high recidivism rate or the number of inmates returning to prison after release. Within three years of their release, two of the three people were re-arrested and more than 50% re-imprisoned, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world – only 20%.

“It’s very easy to say we should do the same thing as always, but guess what?” Little asked. “We will get the same results we have always had.”

Correctional officer Tyler Karasinski, who was a “mass” skeptic of the program when he first flew to Norway, spent some time playing video games with prisoners one week. Returning home to SCI Chester, it would be unthinkable.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “As an officer, I need to worry about other matters. But not very much here. “

The Scandinavian system not only creates a more humane environment for prisoners, but also a less stressful workplace for its staff.

More than just a number

For prisoners selected to live in Little Scandinavia, the program provides an opportunity to become more than just a room in a prison system.

“I hope this is a step towards returning to society, to feeling more human,” said prisoner Joseph Spinks.

Prisoner Kevin Bowman understands that there will be opponents of the program who say prisoners should not have such privileges.

“They said, ‘We don’t deserve this, we don’t deserve this,'” Bowman said. “Yes, we are prisoners. But the most important thing is that we are human.”

Kenneth Isan, head of SCI Chester, said prison reform affects the community, both inside and outside the prison.

“You’ll see a change in culture, you’ll see an impact,” he said. “It will have a ripple effect, and not just within these walls.”

If successful, Little said he would like the program to be expanded to include other state correctional facilities.

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