Learning From European Prisons

Learning From European Prisons

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Imagine a perfect world where the recidivism rate is low, prisons are not overcrowded, and offenders are rehabilitated.  The correctional system in some European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, has made this a reality. 

In February, a group of American corrections officials, judges, prosecutors, and public defenders conducted research that proves the United States has a lot to learn from European countries about correctional rehabilitation. The group took the initiative and took a trip to Europe to investigate what was working for European prisons. The differences they discovered between the European and American penal systems were astounding.

Germany and the Netherlands incarcerate one-tenth the rate of the U.S., where sentencing time is considerably longer. These American judicial officials spent a week visiting prisons in Germany and the Netherlands. The consensus was that the determining factor for these European countries’ success is their approach is directed more towards social reintegration than punishment.   

A new report based on the group’s findings indicates that the failing American prison system has a hopeful chance of recuperating from the faltering situation it is in by adopting some of the European penal procedures that are working.

Practices in Germany and the Netherlands allow inmates to prepare for release, ready to face the world as productive citizens. During the time inmates are serving their sentences, they are allowed a significant amount of discretion over their lives.

Inmates are granted individual privacy and the privilege of making their own decisions about their lives. Some can wear their own clothes and cook their own meals.

Interaction with correctional officers is respectful. Prison staff are educated to use innovative management and conflict resolution skills along with security training.

Germany and the Netherlands use incarceration only when appropriate. Community-service programs, probation, or fines are alternatives to prison time. American prisons impose much longer prison sentences than European countries. While the average state prison term in the United States is about three years, more than 90 percent of Dutch sentences and 75 percent of German sentences are 12 months or less.

U.S. and European correctional philosophies contrast in almost every possible way. The prime justification for incarceration under German policy is to enable prisoners to lead a productive crime-free life upon release. The main objective of removing offenders from the outside world is to maintain community safety by rehabilitating and effectively reintegrating inmates before releasing them.

Once European inmates are released, they reclaim their societal freedoms and rights. Unlike American ex-prisoners that continue to be punished after reentry. Released inmates in the U.S. are confronted with losing their right to vote, difficulties obtaining employment, housing, and public assistance, all of which increase the likelihood of re-offending.

In all fairness, it is difficult to compare apples to oranges because some of the more lenient practices of European countries would not be effective for violent offenders. However, if the U.S. penal system had a method of filtering the lower-level, non-violent offenders from the violent offenders, European practices could be applied successfully. According to a report issued by the Prison Law Office and the Vera Institute, both believe there are collaborative solutions to improving how the American justice system deals with offenders, and many of Europe’s principles could be appropriately applied.            

Many state prison systems are taking the lead in incorporating some of the European retributive principles into their organizations.  Georgia has enlarged its investment in specialized drug and mental-health courts. Colorado, Maine, and Mississippi are among those reforming solitary-confinement practices. Hopefully, the rest of the states will replace archaic traditions with more practical sentencing that will benefit both offenders and society.

The good news about prison reform is some of the answers to the problems the penal system is facing can be borrowed from our European neighbors.