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CT policymakers visit Norwegian prisons to learn best practices

Connecticut policy makers and advocates visited Norway prisons in November 2022 in order to learn about the country’s rehabilitation system for incarcerated individuals with the goal of bringing practices back to Conn. Christoffer Dahl, 27, is seen in Norway’s Bergen Prison tool shed where he has access to tools for maintenance work. Dahl had been incarcerated at Bergen for 18 months in November. (Video Screen Grab/Connecticut Public)
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Connecticut Public
Connecticut policy makers and advocates visited Norway prisons in November 2022 to learn about the country’s rehabilitation system for incarcerated individuals with the goal of bringing practices back to Connecticut. Christoffer Dahl, 27, stands in a tool shed at Norway’s Bergen Prison where he has access to tools for maintenance work. At the time, Dahl had been incarcerated at Bergen for 18 months.

Over the past decade, Connecticut has been able to cut its prison population in nearly half and criminal justice advocates say that number can go even lower if you think of corrections as rehabilitation. That’s why a group of Connecticut policy makers and thought leaders toured prisons in Norway to learn best practices. Our Accountability Project tagged along to see what the group learned.

When we first met Christoffer Dahl, he was inside a tool shed unsupervised — with access to a hammer, a screwdriver and a blade.

“We do maintenance, we do fishing cabinets, paint wall," Dahl said. "If they do something outside, we do gardening. We do everything.”

Everything includes making meals for each other, with access to a stove, knives and other utensils. Dahl can also watch television and work out with his floormates.

“In here, we (sic) pretty much brothers," he said. "We do some activities. Every Monday we work. We bake cake. Make lunch every Friday for each other. We do different things."

You might think this is a dorm, but it’s actually a prison. It’s the Bergen Prison in Norway. Dahl, 27, has been here for 18 months and has three months to go. His sentence was cut short by nine months for good behavior. We asked him why he's here.

“Cocaine, crazy life, party, women. So, you end up here,” Dahl said.

And that’s all we can tell you about Dahl’s criminal history because Norway has prisoner’s rights and the public cannot access someone else’s criminal history. Around this unit, you’ll see pictures of Dahl rock climbing on the outside. It’s one of his favorite activities. Because of his good behavior, he’s been taken on rock climbing trips in plain clothes and unshackled.

“I like ... climbing. Use my body,” he said.

Dahl said he’s relatively comfortable and he likes the way he’s treated. He’s undergoing drug treatment, which prisoners have to volunteer in order to participate. Dahl is also talking to a psychiatrist.

“I never trust a psychiatrist outside,” he said. “They’re so open. All the guards are open and  forthcoming."

'The public, they own the prisons'

When it comes to American prisons, Dahl says his only knowledge of them is movies. It doesn’t seem that great, he said.

“They don't have respect for inmates,” Dahl said. “If the employees give respect, if they give me respect, I give them respect. So it go (sic) both ways. They help me, then I can help them to get better in the job." 

For Per Voge, who was the warden of this prison from 1992 until 2000, this thinking is exactly what prison officials have been working towards.

“We have a basic value in the Scandinavian countries, based on that, everyone have (sic) to be integrated in the society," Voge said. "So we never lose an inhabitant, while he's executing a sentence. So we don't have this separation of the criminal out of society, whether he is also inside the society.

"We also try to say that every person in Norway ... is a shareholder of every prison. So the public, they own the prisons. It's not a private enterprise.”

Per Voge, International Adviser/Director of Norwegian Correctional Service, center, leads a group of Connecticut policy makers through a Norway prison November, 2022. Conn. State Rep. Robyn Porter is far right.
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Connecticut Public
Per Voge, International Adviser/Director of Norwegian Correctional Service, center, leads a group of Connecticut policy makers through a Norway prison November, 2022. Conn. State Rep. Robyn Porter is far right.

It's that type of thinking that piques the interest of Connecticut State Rep. Robyn Porter, a Democrat who represents New Haven and Hamden.

Porter said she wants to see more compassion in Connecticut prisons. It’s something she saw first-hand in Norway, which led to an emotional reaction.

“I was literally brought to tears because as a mother of someone who was formally incarcerated, I think about what our trajectory would've been as a family, because we did that time with him as well," Porter said. "And they integrate family; they integrate holidays; they allowed children to come and visit. The things that they have access to are totally like far from what we do in Connecticut. And it's conducive to everything that we say we want them to, to be when they come home. Productive citizens. But we don't give them the tools; we don't give them the practice. So that's what I find a little contradictory.”

'How can we change?'

Porter and the rest of the group were brought to Norway by the University of Connecticut’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy. Its director, Andrew Clark, has been researching for years the European way of corrections. It’s important to have these conversations and show people there’s another way, he said.

“Norway has not always been like this," Clark said. "It was very punitive. In the '80s, the '90s, they were facing prison overcrowding. They had an inflection point as well, and they chose — guided by international standards and best practices — to go the route that they're going.

"I think that's an important north star for us to understand. How can we change?"

Exterior of the men’s unit of Norway’s Bergen Prison.
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Connecticut Public
Exterior of the men’s unit of Norway’s Bergen Prison.

Connecticut has already made a number of changes to the prison system. But Clark and Porter hope this trip leads to more collaboration in Connecticut. Dahl’s experience shows that collaboration could be beneficial for everyone involved.

Learn more
A group of Connecticut policy makers and thought leaders toured prisons in Norway to learn best practices. Go along with them in Cutline: Transforming Corrections, which airs March 16 at 8 p.m. on CPTV. It re-airs March 18 at 1 p.m. on CPTV Spirit and 10 a.m. March 19 on CPTV, as well as 6 p.m. March 19 on CPTV Spirit.

Walter Smith Randolph is Connecticut Public’s Investigative Editor. In 2021, Walter launched The Accountability Project, CT Public’s investigative reporting initiative. Since then, the team’s reporting has led to policy changes across the state. Additionally, The Accountability Project’s work has been honored with a National Edward R. Murrow award from RTDNA, two regional Murrow awards, a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists, three regional EMMY nominations and a dozen CT SPJ awards.