February 07 2023

Nils Öberg on Sweden’s miraculous prisons

Nils Öberg on Sweden’s miraculous prisons

Prison window, flickr under creative comms

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Prison window, from Flickr, decade-null

Prison window, from Flickr, decade-null

The state of prisons internationally represents ‘nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe waiting to happen,’ said the director of Swedish Prisons and Probation Nils Öberg last week. Delivering the annual Longford Lecture, Öberg highlighted the ways in which Sweden was ‘cracking the code’ of how to close prisons and reduce the prison population.

  •  You can read the transcript here and watch the speech below

Bucking the trend
There are currently 10 million prisoners worldwide, many of whom are detained without charge in overcrowded prisons. Penal Reform International reports that 24 national prison systems hold more than double their capacity, with a further 27 countries holding between 150 and 200 per cent more. Between June 1993 and June 2012 the prison population in England and Wales increased by 41,800 prisoners to over 86,000.

While Öberg made clear that he was ‘not in any way claiming that the Swedish way is the only solution’, he nevertheless demonstrated that Sweden is defying the international trend towards crisis and overcrowding in prisons. The country has seen a 6% decline in its prison population each year since 2011, has a reoffending rate half that of the UK and most European countries, and has recently closed down four of its oldest and most run down prisons and remand centres.

Alternatives to custodial sentences
‘To our profession, incarceration must always by the last resort,’ Öberg stated, before identifying several reasons for the proliferation of non-custodial sentences in Sweden. Central to this trend was a growing popular consensus that ‘reducing prison numbers to a minimum is the right thing to do, especially as a long-term strategy.’

According to Öberg, the shorter-term reasons for reduced incarceration include the public spending cuts that followed the 2007 financial crisis. He suspects that this has led to the adoption of more lenient sentencing by Swedish courts, with a recent Supreme Court judgment lowering sentences for very serious drug offences by one third.

A scientific approach
Öberg expressed his commitment to evidence-based policy-making and scientific enquiry when approaching the problem of reoffending and rehabilitation. ‘You need to deal with all of a prisoner’s problems, not just the ones that got them into prison. You cannot deal with only one problem at a time. Ours is a multi-modality approach, addressing all of the problems all of the time,’ he explained.

Öberg gave the example of a group of repeat offenders with a history of substance abuse. A staff psychologist working with the prisoners suggested that there might be a link between drug addiction and undiagnosed ADHD. ‘The group were offered active medical treatment in conjunction with other social programmes and therapy. They responded so remarkably well that we had a hard time believing it. The results have been replicated in other scientific studies, and we are about to launch a national study to confirm them,’ Öberg said.

Media and political support
Öberg observed that the consistent drop in the Swedish prison population has been part of a bi-partisan political project. ‘Sweden’s centre-right coalition has been tough on crime, keen to recriminalise, and has introduced a package of penalties for serious crimes. Yet the long term strategy of prioritising non-custodial and alternative sanctions has remained,’ he said.

Öberg nevertheless highlighted that ‘as a profession I think we have not succeeded well in informing the general public of what our work is all about.’ He accepted the need to recognise that ‘when crime is mentioned, people feel fear. I don’t think that legislation can do much about that.’

Responding to a question from the audience about the role of the media and politicians, Öberg reiterated that ‘We have had strong support from politicians. The criminal justice system is not part of the debate the way it is in the UK. Recent elections in Sweden saw very few discussions about criminal justice.’

‘In Sweden individual government members are constitutionally prohibited from interfering in the way we carry out our role. How we carry out our work is not defined by law. This is considerably different to many European countries’ approach.’
Nils Öberg

The importance of staff
‘Staff nowadays is the single most important component of a dynamic prison and probation strategy,’ Öberg said. ‘Much of our strategy is labour intensive and therefore very costly. The prison and probation service is currently the fourth largest state run organisation in the country. But I am convinced that the alternative would be even more costly,’ he said.

Swedish prison officers undergo 20 weeks of training, and the staff-to-prisoner ratio in Öberg’s prison and probation system approaches 1 to 1. He also emphasised the importance of staff-prisoner relations, and revealed that Swedish prison staff are encouraged to spend time with prisoners throughout the day. ‘If you don’t like people of a particular kind, you cannot be part of our team. If you are afraid of or indifferent to, disrespect or look down on prisoners because of their situation, you are by default excluded from our operation,’ Öberg said.

Although Öberg himself was careful not to pass judgment on foreign prison systems, Sweden’s commitment to staffing stands in marked contrast to the UK, which has cut 25% of prison officers and 44% of management staff since the coalition Government assumed power in 2010. Commentators from across the British political spectrum are raising the alarm about a prisoner suicide and overpopulation crisis in Britain’s prisons. Suicide rates among UK prisoners reached their highest rate in a decade, with Lord Ramsbotham, ex-Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK, recently directly blaming Chris Grayling for the crisis.

Öberg ended the lecture by quoting another of his prison staff, who had told him: ‘Sometimes I am sad at the end of my working day, because it is not a criminal I see when I lock the cell door, but a human.’ Öberg maintained that it was Sweden’s ability to afford such well-trained and empathetic team members that was allowing the prison and probation system to reduce the prison population.