A Swedish prison warden opens doors for inmates

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

''The prisoner gives me energy. Would you understand that? I'm happy to be here on this program, because these are things everyone needs to know about, and they don't.''

Seven hundred correctional workers sat stock-still and silent as AnnBritt Grunewald, warden of Sweden's 170-man maximum-security Osteraker National Prison (third largest of her country's more than 80 prisons), spoke about justice, Swedish style, and delivered an impassioned plea for expanded rehabilitative efforts worldwide.

The capacity crowd represented only a small fraction of the more than 3,500 correctional workers, from more than 20 countries, who gathered in Toronto recently for the 112th Congress of the American Correctional Association.

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As described by Mrs. Grunewald, Sweden's correctional system is designed to open doors for lawbreakers, not close them.

About 12,000 of Sweden's more than 8 million citizens served prison terms in 1980. Nearly one-third of these sentences were for drunken driving. Even first-time drunk drivers are smacked with a 30-day prison term in Sweden.

Drug abuse is one of Sweden's most serious problems, and Mrs. Grunewald says nearly all addicts eventually come into contact with the correctional system - generally because they must sell drugs to support their addiction.

''In my quite well-informed opinion,'' said Mrs. Grunewald, who serves on a national advisory council on drugs, ''about half the Swedish prison population abuse narcotic drugs, and another 40 percent are alcoholics. Many, of course, mix several drugs - whatever they can get hold of.''

Osteraker was chosen to carry out the largest prison-based anti-addiction program to date. Mrs. Grunewald says about one-third of the prison's inmates are enrolled in the voluntary program, which blends work release with education, vocational training, and other rehabilitation activities.

Those who choose to take part in the program find dancing classes are a compulsory part of the regimen. ''It's a very important social skill,'' Mrs. Grunewald said. ''Prisoners need to learn how to meet people.''

Many Swedish offenders receive treatment in small group homes - similar to halfway houses in the United States - or through placement with families (often on small farms) specially selected for their warmth and stability. And unlike US prisons, Swedish prisons are located near residential and business sections to promote contact with the community.

Work release, furloughs, and lengthy ''sojourns'' for education, training, or drug treatment are common. They are favored by both the Riksdag (parliament) and the news media, Mrs. Grunewald said.

''Ordinary citizens are less charmed,'' she says, because the open policies mean that even those in prison can commit new crimes. And drugs can easily find their way into the prisons, she notes.

Many prisoners go home frequently for conjugal visits, a policy Sweden's government says accounts for the marked absence of prison homosexuality. The practice also strengthens family ties, Mrs. Grunewald says, and prisoners' families receive further help from Sweden's ever-present social welfare system.

Osteraker Prison, Mrs. Grunewald says, includes a motel-like facility where wives or girlfriends can meet privately with prisoners for three-hour visits.

Because those with criminal records often suffer from discrimination in housing, employment, or health care, Mrs. Grunewald said, a probation officer's responsibility to defend a client's rights is given equal weight with the mandate to ensure that clients behave responsibly.

Despite rising unemployment, Sweden has met with considerable success in helping prisoners find jobs after release, according to government papers. Private industry also operates programs inside the prisons - Sweden's unions have not complained - and many (though not all) inmate employees receive market wages, Mrs. Grunewald said.

Nearly 16 percent of all inmates participate in work or study release, according to Swedish government figures. But nearly three-quarters of Sweden's prisoners serve four months or less - too short a sentence for work release. About four-fifths of those on work or study release complete their releases without incident, government studies indicate.

Upon request, Swedish correctional policy statements say, prisoners working within prisons are usually allowed to work alone, and efforts are made to match their jobs to their interests. Prison jobs include industrial work, agriculture, forestry, construction, and service work.

Sweden's correctional workers - called caretakers, not guards - were recently empowered by the government to play increasingly significant roles in all aspects of inmate treatment, Mrs. Grunewald says. They must have completed their baccalaureat (Grade 13), and they receive intensive training, with pay, at a national school.

About 40 percent of the prison officers working at the all-male Osteraker Prison are women, according to Mrs. Grunewald. There were problems when recruitment of women started about 12 years ago, she says, but the women officers have been ''superb.'' She thinks the high proportion of female officers has helped make Sweden's system more humane.

Mrs. Grunewald appeared to find much of what she learned about US attitudes toward corrections deeply troubling.

''You talk of costs and benefits,'' she says. ''My personal opinion is that (rehabilitation programs) well cover their costs to society. And by the way - when is (treatment) successful enough to be recorded as an asset in some ledger? When does it break even?

''We hope to start the process of rehabilitation for some of the heaviest drug addicts in our country - not all of them Swedes. And we expect that they will continue their rehabilitation after leaving prison. It takes many years to repair and reeducate someone who's been on heavy drugs for 10 to 15 years. Reeducate - that's a word we use!Changing your life takes a long time,'' she emphasized.

''When you see the things people have gone through,'' Mrs. Grunewald said, when asked to name her greatest challenge as a warden, ''it's very difficult to know whether they got into this because their living conditions were so hard, or if the blame should be put on the individual. Most of my inmates (were) beaten children, I would say 99 percent. They are wounded people.''

''You can't give up on rehabilitation,'' she said as she closed her remarks. ''Treatment programs cost extra. But the extra money is a very profitable investment for society. Treatment always pays!''

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