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Is it Really Punishment: A Scandinavian Perspective

In debates preceding the Independence Referendum there was some discussion of how our criminal justice system would change if we voted Yes. This article discusses the ways in which politicians looked to the “Scandinavian way” in particular as a model on which we could build our new society. 

Written by Gillian Lolic, fourth year LLB.



We enter a corridor to the scent of dinner cooking, one peek into the kitchen and you find two men slaving over the stove, one is using what can only be described as a butcher’s cleaver to prepare vegetables for whatever it is that they are cooking. VridslØselille looks like a typical prison from the outside; there are high stone walls topped with barbed wire and airport style metal detectors to pass through on entry, but this prison is very different on the inside. It may be split into wings with heavy steel doors barring entry but you still won’t find any prisons like this in the UK – from viewing the catering alone the differences are beginning to become apparent. What might surprise you the most is that this is a high security prison, one of the highest security prisons, one man we are speaking to is a tax avoider and smuggler, I assume drugs but didn’t ask, the other a murderer, and the prison staff trust them to behave.

This prison is in Denmark, it sits on the edge of Copenhagen, only 30 minutes on the train from the city centre. I’m here as part of my course from the University of Copenhagen, they are trying to show us that the Scandinavian system, while very different than we are used to in a class full of Brits, Aussies and Americans, does work.

The Danish system may be one of the most liberal prison systems in the world but it is not unique. The other Scandinavian countries have similar systems, with one prison in Oslo having a wing specifically for older prison wardens – they are given the calmest and best behaved prisoners to watch over. Another prison is an island where the inmates are expected to be self-sufficient.

This system of punishment is so different to anything seen in the UK that it seems unlikely to work in a newly independent Scotland, not to mention that this is not what the British public think of as justice. This is more evident when we look at the typical conditions in a Danish prison.

Their cells are nice, nicer than my room was in Murano; yes the windows have bars and the floors are bare wood, but they have televisions that they brought in with them, rugs on the floor and shelves filled with books. The prison wardens tell us that the whole point of the Scandinavian system is that the restriction of liberty is the only punishment, life itself should be as normal as possible. To that end the prisoners work, each week two prisoners in each block are in charge of making dinner for the whole corridor, and they have to plan and budget and buy in their food. They have to wash their own clothes, look after the pet fish that they have in the corner, and tidy the communal areas. They are even allowed to go home – the visits are supervised at first but once they prove trustworthy, then they are allowed to return to their homes for a few weekends a month unsupervised and expected to come back to prison themselves. The number of non-returners is actually surprisingly low.

It gets even more lax when we look at the open style prisons such as Jyderup. Here prisoners can rent a mobile phone from the prison, a basic one that has no cameras and can only call or text, most have free access to the internet, although its only supposed to be for university work, and some even get jobs in the local community towards the end of their sentences. What shocked me most was that some even had cars, and were held to be responsible enough to call ahead to the prison if they got stuck in traffic on their way back from work and would be late. The wardens tell us that they even have community and family fun days, and that the local town is happy to have the prison nearby, some towns even bid to have prisons built near them as they are seen as an asset to the area.


When you compare this to the system in the UK, there are very few similarities; to people in the UK this may even seem like a holiday, a joke rather than a punishment. There are a few open prisons in the UK but nothing on the scale that is present in Denmark. Also whilst many tabloids comment on how soft life is in a British prison with free bed and board, wages and satellite TV; mobile phones are forbidden, access to internet is severely restricted and visits home are rare. It is also of note that most British prisoners share cells which is not the normal Scandinavian practice, and they are far less self-sufficient.

The rate of reoffending, 26% in Denmark[1] contrasted with 46.8% in the UK[2], shows that this style of imprisonment is very successful.  So why does it work?

There is no attempt at a deterrent, the prisons are far too pleasant for that, and Scandinavians are much more accepting of former prisoners than elsewhere in the Western world so societal pressures are of less effect, as evidenced by the willingness of communities to have prisons placed in their vicinity. Perhaps the reason that this actually works is that life in the prisons is normal – they are treated as responsible human beings. They have to get themselves up in the morning, they have to cook, to clean, and mend their clothes, if something is wrong then the prison guards will be sympathetic but ultimately expect the prisoners to resolve their own personal problems.

They are also put to useful work; in both prisons that we visited it was the prisoners who had built the churches. Both were well built and artistic buildings – in VridslØselille the floor was a mosaic depicting the animals on Noah’s Ark, and it had been designed and installed by inmates. They learn practical skills like plumbing, carpentry, and bricklaying. There are cooking courses and they are encouraged to earn degrees through distance learning. Those without basic education are given it. Through going to prison they are encouraged to make their lives better.

It sounds idyllic, like the perfect system, but there are many things which I would suggest don’t work. The maximum prison sentence is 16 years, and that is very rarely handed out, the minimum length of imprisonment being 5 years for murder. Until recently the maximum sentence for rape was 8 years and due to the Danish rule that the punishment should be to the lower end of the scale, the average prison sentence was 4 years, and it is uncommon for an offender to serve a full sentence. More shockingly, if the woman was incapacitated it was not charged as rape but as a lower category of sexual assault. A report by Amnesty International[3] has led to a change in the laws including the reclassification of rape from a crime against public morals to a sexual crime, but this has only occurred within the last few years.  

In a specific case of a car crash resulting in the death of three children in Northern Jutland in 2012, the man who caused the accident whilst speeding and using his mobile phone was banned from driving for 2 years and given a fine equivalent to £1000.[4] This seems like nothing, it does not appear to reflect the severity of this man’s actions at all, and in fact, if this had occurred in the Scottish Borders then he would likely have been charged with death by dangerous driving carrying a mandatory prison sentence of between 2-14 years, a much more fitting punishment to British sensibilities. But perhaps this is because there is greater political pressure to be tough on crime and to enforce harsher penalties, rather than a focus on keeping people out of prison and continuing to contribute to society.

I would argue that the Danish prison system works, it allows for people to be treated with responsibility, like fully fledged adults who are responsible for their own actions and stops them from being institutionalised. There are many things which we can take away from their example and apply to our own prisons particularly their attitude towards former prisoners, but we must still remember that these people have committed a crime and as such deserve to be punished, and their sentence must reflect the fact that their actions have affected the victims and their families.

The reason this works in Denmark is because it has been this way for a very long time; since the end of WWII. In order to implement a system like this in a newly independent Scotland, it would require a massive shift in the way we think about people who have committed crimes, in our justice system and in our prison infrastructure. Thus ultimately, whilst there are Scandinavian adjustments that we can make, Scandinavian justice is not reasonably achievable in Scotland.

[1] The Danish Prison and Probation Service – in brief  Kriminal Forsorgen, p11

[2] Proven Re-offending Statistics Quarterly Bulletin: January to December 2009, England and Wales Ministry of Justice

[3] Case Closed: Rape and Human Rights in the Nordic Countries, Amnesty International -

[4] Father of Killed Children “Sickened” by Driver’s Light Sentence Justin Cremer

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