A new report from the Swedish Prison and Probation Service claims that 46 percent of Sweden’s inmates are mentally ill, that 70 percent have severe drug problems and that these problems mostly have their origins in early life. As elsewhere, Sweden’s prison population is made up of the most disenfranchised, poorest and most vulnerable elements of society. Sweden’s leading criminologist, Jerzy Sarnecki, notes this and argues that house arrest with an ankle monitor should be used in the case of minor crimes. While anyone who has any knowledge of the scholarship on the effects of imprisonment would agree that this would be an improvement, it would hopefully down the road be a step toward the complete abolition of the prison system. Prison sentences are not only arbitrarily and corruptly passed — they simply do not work.
Contrary to popular belief, being imprisoned in Sweden is no picnic. Although there is a big difference between Sweden and the US, Sweden’s prisoners are also needlessly treated in inhumane ways. Former inmate Torgny Jönsson was one of many inmates placed in the so called “bunker,” a high security facility where inmates are denied any kind of education, rehabilitation, treatment, occupation or visits from family members. He has now started the campaign Reclaim Justice, suing the Prison and Probation Service, on the charge that bunker placement is “legally uncertain like in the USA,” arbitrary and lacks procedural transparency.
The prison system is built on a fundamental paradox of principles. On the one hand, its defenders make pragmatic, consequentialist arguments like “we need to send a clear message to criminals.” But all evidence points to the fact that harsher sentences, longer bids and worse conditions increase recidivism rather than decrease it. It should be obvious, being imprisoned doesn’t make you a better person. It makes you more hostile to the society that put you there and it makes the rest of society more hostile to you — making it more difficult to live a “normal life” once you’ve been released. When faced with these simple arguments, the “tough on crime” crowd sometimes show their true colors — their objective was never to rehabilitate or deter, but to exact vengeance.