Life in a Danish Prison

Week two has been fairly uneventful; I’m mostly figuring out and settling into my routine.

When I wasn’t in class, I was either (a) trying (and failing) to swing dance, (b) rock climbing (which has quickly become my new favorite hobby), (c) getting creative with my cooking (I’ve recently started making double- and triple-decker fried egg sandwiches, which I’m sure is doing wonders for my cholesterol), or (d) dancing my ass off at a bar/club called the Happy Pig which is thankfully only a street away from my apartment.

Google, this is what you come up with when I search "Happy Pig"? More like Demonic Pig

However, the highlight of my week was a field trip to a Danish open prison called Jyderup. Without going into a long explanation about the Scandinavian criminal justice system, here are some ways Jyderup was different from American prisons:

  • The prisoners’ rooms in Jyderup did not look like this:

 

In fact, they looked more like this:

Overall, the conditions were far nicer than anything American prisoners could ever dream of. Not only are there rooms nicer than     most U.S. college dorms, the Danish prisoners are allowed a TV, video game consoles, etc. They share a communal kitchen where they prepare their meals; most of our group was shocked at the GIANT knives at the prisoners’ disposal. On the grounds, there is a church, fully furnished gym, and get this, TANNING BEDS. There’s a reason most believe Danish prison is nothing more than a peaceful vacation resort.

  • The Danish prisoners have a whole lotta freedom. At this prison, they’re allowed to go home every three weekends and they’re simply trusted to come back on Sunday night (probably has to do with how much the Danes trust each other). They’re allowed to have their family visit their rooms, which are treated by the prison as their homes. I even passed one room where a guy was playing Farmville on his laptop!
  • Sentences in Denmark are far shorter, and they don’t believe in the death penalty. It’s not uncommon for people here to receive less than ten years for severe crimes such as homicide, although the more serious criminals are usually sent to closed prisons instead of open ones. Overall, Denmark appears to take a more rehabilitative stance to criminals, which is far from America’s obsession with punishment and retribution.
  • Nearly all of the guards at Jyderup are female, and they have a surprisingly close relationship with the male prisoners. Our tour was led by a female guard and a prisoner named Johnny, and they seemed like best friends! I realize their relationship is probably more professional than they let on, but I was amazed that they were joking around with each other and that they knew details about each others’ personal lives.
  • Speaking of Johnny, he certainly was not a prisoner who looked like this:
In fact, he looked more like this:

Without the jumpsuit and the whole being behind bars thing...

Honestly, I had no idea that Johnny was a prisoner until he starting mentioning his crimes. He also explained to us that even though the prison seems like a utopia to an outsider, it’s crushing him to not be able to go home whenever he wants to. I’ve actually heard about quite a few Danish prisoners who wish they were “behind bars”, so that they wouldn’t have to live with the faux sense of freedom found in open prisons. Many of the prisoners, Johnny included, managed to have a sense of humor about their situation. I guess a tanning bed isn’t enough to lift someone’s spirits.

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Overall, I’ve come to the conclusion that this system works well for this particular culture and society. There are so many reasons why a similar structure wouldn’t work in the U.S.: less trust in our fellow citizens, higher crime rates, a more unequal income distribution, greater racial and ethnic diversity, etc. In fact, there’s some emerging evidence that it’s not even working for Denmark–at least, as well it should be. Recidivism rates are increasing and everyone I interacted with at the prison spoke about how Jyderup’s rehabilitation attempts aren’t always successful. Part of me thinks that Denmark is doing something smart, and another part is starting to believe that they’ve just gotten lucky.

I will have more to write about this subject after I visit a closed prison in a few weeks. In the meantime, happy Super Bowl day!

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About teecheng
Teach for China fellow in a small town called Hepingzhen, located in Shantou Prefecture of Guangdong Province. My interests change as quickly as China has in the past few decades, but I'm using this time to learn about education and the Middle Kingdom, explore my cultural heritage, and travel as much as possible. People say I have characteristics of both a middle-aged father and an 8-year-old boy.

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