Swedish prisons have long had a reputation around the world for being liberal and progressive. So much so that in 2005 even former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein requested to be transferred to a Swedish prison to await his trial — a request that was rejected by the Swedish authorities. Are the country’s prisons a soft option?
The head of Sweden’s prison and probation service, Nils Oberg, announced last month that four Swedish prisons are to be closed due to an “out of the ordinary” decline in prisoner numbers.
Although there has been no fall in crime rates, between 2011 and last year there was a 6 percent drop in Sweden’s prisoner population, now just over 4,500. A similar decrease is expected for this year and the next. Oberg admitted to being puzzled by the unexpected dip, but expressed optimism that the reason had to do with how his prisons are run.
“We certainly hope that the efforts we invest in rehabilitation and preventing relapse of crime has had an impact,” he said.
“The modern prison service in Sweden is very different from when I joined as a young prison officer in 1978,” said Kenneth Gustafsson, governor of Kumla prison, Sweden’s most secure jail, situated 200km west of Stockholm. However, he does not think the system has gone soft.
“When I joined, the focus was very much on humanity in prisons. Prisoners were treated well, maybe too well, some might say. However, after a number of high-profile escapes in 2004 we had to rebalance and place more emphasis on security,” he added.
One of those escapes was made by Tony Olsen, who was serving life imprisonment for shooting dead two police officers, from a maximum security prison in collusion with a prison guard. The director general of the prison service was then forced to step down.
Despite the hardening of attitudes toward prison security following the escape scandals, the Swedes still managed to maintain a broadly humane approach to sentencing, even of the most serious offenders: Jail terms rarely exceed 10 years; those who receive life imprisonment can still apply to the courts after a decade to have the sentence commuted to a fixed term, usually in the range of 18 to 25 years. Sweden was the first country in Europe to introduce the electronic tagging of convicted criminals and continues to strive to minimize short-term prison sentences wherever possible by using community-based measures — proven to be more effective at reducing reoffending.
According to the British Ministry of Justice, the highest rate of reoffending within a year of release among adults is recorded by those serving 12 months or less. The overall reoffending rate in Sweden stands between 30 percent and 40 percent over three years — around half that in the UK. One likely factor that has kept reoffending down and the rate of incarceration in Sweden below 70 per 100,000 head of population — less than half the figure for England and Wales — is that the age of criminal responsibility is set at 15. In the UK, children aged 10 to 17 and young people under the age of 21 record the highest reoffending rates: almost three-quarters and two-thirds respectively — a good proportion of whom go on to populate adult jails. Unlike the UK, where a life sentence can be handed down to a 10-year-old, in Sweden no young person under the age of 21 can be sentenced to life and every effort is made to ensure that as few juvenile offenders as possible end up in prison.