Now imagine yourself in a prison that commands a view from a tourist brochure. Your cell phone lies on a shelf, next to a TV and CD player, inside a prison that lets you go to paid work or study. There is no perimeter wall. Prison staff will help you with free-world social services to cover a missed month’s rent on your family’s apartment. Another will help you look for work, or for the next stage of education. Imagine yourself a prisoner who knows he is in prison for what he did, not because of his color or class, or because, lacking the resources for a proper defense, he plea-bargained under threat of near-geological years of incarceration. But also imagine living on this lovely island knowing, every minute of every day, that this is not your home, these people are not your family, your friends, your children, and you are always one misstep from a cell in a closed prison. You have strict curfews. In town you carry an electronic anklet. Yet nothing here feels unfair or unreasonable. You have, after all, committed a crime serious enough to make a range of other remedies untenable. Nothing you can see or touch or smell or taste, and no interaction with staff gives you anything to blame or resent about the system that brought you here.
This is the polished glass nightmare. Every emotional discomfort, every moment of remorse that you might try to cover with resentment of the system, everything you try to grip onto to crawl away from personal responsibility slides back into the pit of the self. Judges and prosecutors are unelected professionals who are under political pressure only tominimize prison populations. The message everywhere you look and walk is the same. You did this to yourself. You sit in a university classroom, but you harbor a secret. You are not like the others. On the way to work, you walk along a lovely sea wall, among kids and adults on holiday, but you know you are not free. You look like them; they never raise an eyebrow at you. But you know. You are under quarantine, and the disease is the past you made for yourself. Everything is being done to help and prepare you to clear this secret and live again like others. But the weight, finally, rests with you. This truly existential weight is implicit in the principle of normality, which is practiced throughout Scandinavian prisons: “The punishment is the restriction of liberty; no other rights have been removed,” reads a fact sheet on criminal services in Norway. “During the serving of a sentence, life inside will resemble life outside as much as possible. You need a reason to deny a sentenced offender his rights, not to grant them. Progression through a sentence should be aimed as much as possible at returning to the community. The more closed a system is, the harder it will be to return to freedom.”
In full in The Atlantic.