The philosophy which guides the Danish prison system is the Theory of Rehabilitation- instead of punishing the person for the crime committed, it encourages solving the reason that led the person to commit the crime in the first place. It is focused towards reintegrating the criminals to society and making them upstanding citizens. Danish prisoners with sentences less than five years live in “open prisons” which lack walls and other security features you would expect in a prison. Not just this, prisoners in Denmark attended classes, is employed even outside prison walls for a standard Danish week (37 hours a week), cook their own meals and even wear their own clothes. Furthermore, married couples are allowed to live together with their children (Only below 3 years) in most cases inside the prison. You’d expect such lax regulations to make for an abysmal prison system where prisoners don’t change at all and crimes rates in the country are extremely high. However, Denmark has only 59 prisoners for every 100,000 residents, while countries like the United States of America, have 730.1 Denmark also has a recidivism rate of just 27% (Recidivism is the tendency of a criminal to re-offend i.e. go back to prison) which is one of the lowest in the world (Compared to 52% in the USA).2 Making us ask an even bigger question- Are the best prisons supposed to be prisons at all?
The Danish system also gives out very short sentences compared to other countries with the average sentence at 6 months whereas only 2 per cent of sentences are over two years. No walls, small sentences, prisoners wearing their own clothes and cooking their own meals- one would be wary that the prison system is too soft. However in 2014, only one prisoner escaped from a Danish prison with a secured perimeter and of the 60,000 prison leaves that are granted each year in the prison system, very few (only 3%) either violate the terms of release or do not return to prison.3 Violence is also rare in Danish prisons. There were three suicides and five other deaths due to other reasons in the entire system combined compared to 4,446 deaths in in U.S prison facilities.4 Everything that we have spoken of above proves that the Danish system has been successful and should be emulated everywhere. However with such a system also come high economic costs.
What are the costs associated with maintaining the Danish prison system?
As per the annual report of the prison and probationary service in Denmark, the total operational expenditure is approx. DKK 3 billion (~3,600 crore rupees). The expenses are highest in closed state prisons such as the Storstrøm Prison where the daily cost of accommodating a prisoner averages DKK 1,928 (~20471 rupees). The cost of the famous open state prisons is DKK 1,131(~12,000 rupees) and local prisons is DKK 1,086(~11,531 rupees). The already high costs are further outmatched in a few prisons such as the Vridsløselille Prison in Albertslund which solely houses foreign criminals and hosted an average of 44.8 inmates in 2016 costs 3,794 DKK (~40,000 rupees) per inmate per night which is surely more expensive than staying in any five star property anywhere in the world5. (For example, a night at the ‘Superior Guestroom’ at D’Angleterre on Kongens Nytorv, the best hotel in Denmark costs 3,250 DKK (~34,500 rupees) and a night at Taj Hotel in Mumbai costs 11,000 rupees). This expenditure has not been done only towards giving the prisoners extra benefits but been used towards educating and training the prisoners so that they can have a normal lifestyle even after prison. In 2011, DKK 122 million was allotted to increase educational efforts towards inmates. Similar efforts have been made towards job creation, reduction of drug use, counselling, etc.
The cost annually per inmate in Denmark came to $104,301 which was much higher than even the OECD average of $69,319 and developed countries with many more prisoners such as the United Kingdom and United States of America which stood at $63,214 and $43,210 respectively. Thus begging the question whether such a model is duplicable in a country like India or not.
What have been the other costs and benefits to Danish society by following such a model?
The Danish philosophy of prisons is one of “Normalization” i.e. to create an environment as closely resembling outside life as possible that they will ideally return to and function in. Instead of adding to the agony to the lives of the people who have been incarcerated, it aims to simply curb crime and help them get back to normal society. This has given exceedingly positive results. The recidivism rate in open prison is close to 19% right now and very few people don’t find jobs because they were incarcerated at some point6. There are few cases of violence within prisons and Denmark sees one of the lowest crime rates in the world. However, a hidden cost of attempting to maintain the dignity of the prisoners is that minor crimes go unnoticed. For example, since guards aren’t allowed to inspect visitors, a lot of drugs enter the prison compounds unnoticed. Furthermore, in 2013, a person from the country’s highest security prison once simply wore a burqa of a visitor and left the facilities. He has still not been found7. The Danish system is full of such imperfections which the management has now come to accept in light of the amazing results that this system has shown.
However an important question to ask is whether there is causation between this system and low recidivism rates or simply correlation as Denmark is a country with low Gini coefficient, very low poverty rates, and one of the best social benefits systems- all of which are contributing factors to low crime rates.
Should the Government use tax payers’ money to run prisons?
Absolutely, evidence shows that a significant reduction in prison population actually tends to be associated to spikes in crime rate. As can be seen in the graph below in Denmark itself there is a negative correlation between total police recorded offences and prison population8. Furthermore, like the Danish model teaches us, every person is allowed to make mistakes including the prison services themselves; it’s about how you correct that mistake and move on that matters. If a model like this one is implemented everywhere, it will lead to low recidivism rates and make the expenditure by the government on its own citizens who have made a mistake- absolutely worth it. Committing a crime doesn’t isolate you from humanity neither does it restrict the governments’ responsibility of taking care of its citizens.