International Review of Custodial Models for Women: Key Messages for Scotland

This report summarises some of the international evidence on different approaches to managing women in custody. It was prepared to inform the consultation undertaken by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service earlier this year in relation to the redesign of the female custodial estate in Scotland.

6.The Scandinavian Model

Countries with low prison populations, typically Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland), take a non-punitive approach which recognises prisoners as citizens with rights and considers prison (or restriction of liberty) as sufficient punishment in itself. In all other respects, prisons are expected to resemble normal life as far as possible. This concept of normalisation is central to Scandinavian penal policy and in some countries, such as Denmark and Sweden, is enshrined in law[100]. In addition to lower female prison prison populations (see An international perspective in Chapter 4), recidivism rates are also reported to be lower in Scandinavian countries. As seen in the previous chapter, Scandinavian countries[xvi] tend to have large numbers of small prisons. Their prison estate comprises of a network of closed and open prisons, with the latter holding 20-30% of the total prison population. Most prisoners will serve a significant proportion of their sentence in a closed prison, but will move to open prisons either as a result of good behaviour and/or to prepare for release. The rate of breach (including men) in open prisons is between 15-20%; in these instances the prisoner is recalled to a closed institution[101]. Routine drug testing occurs in both types of prisons. Convicted (male and female) offenders can request an unconditional prison sentence to be deferred for several months (e.g. for family, work or health reasons); about 20% of requests are successful[102].

From the outside closed prisons look similar to prisons in other jurisdictions. However, inside they differ considerably from traditional models[103]:

  • Prisoners have their own cells, often with a television
  • Movement within prisons is relatively relaxed (although it may be underground in high security prisons)
  • Most prisoners work or participate in full-time education programmes
  • There are communal areas with cooking facilities and televisions
  • In lower-security prisons, prisoners can shop for food at local shops
  • Prisoners wear their own clothes (as do prison officers)
  • Most prisons (high security especially) provide accommodation for partners and children to stay at weekends (usually monthly) on an unsupervised basis, and conjugal rights are facilitated.

Open prisons, in existence since 1945, tend to have the following features[104]:

  • In some cases, there are no obvious barriers or walls around the prison - there are no bars on windows
  • Prisoners can move freely around the prison grounds and sometimes in the local community
  • Many of those serving short sentences are allowed to continue with their previous employment (e.g. driving to/from work from the prison)
  • In Finland prisoners receive a working wage; in Norway and Sweden they receive an allowance.

Countries with a low and decreasing and/or stable female prison population (the "common Nordic level") tend to share the following features in common:

  • Strong welfare state with significant autonomy and independence from political structures
  • Egalitarian rather than hierarchical society with little class distinction and high levels of compliance with social norms
  • Penal policy is expert-driven and research-led rather than politically-led[105]
  • Non-punitive, welfare approach to offending in which community alternatives and rehabilitation are prioritised
  • Rehabilitation is based on an 'import model' with universal services coming into prisons to deliver services
  • Prisoners undertake purposeful activities during the day (e.g. work, education)
  • Heavy use of community supervision, conditional imprisonment (e.g. in Finland)[106] and open prisons
  • Prison work is a desirable profession, requiring two-three years training[107] (compared with 8 weeks in Scotland[xvii]). Staff attitudes towards prisoners are consistent with the ethos of normalisation
  • Dedicated (small) facilities for women
  • Emphasis placed on maintaining a mother's contact with her children, in some cases enabling her to reside with them whilst serving a custodial sentence
  • Public support for a rehabilitative approach, underpinned by the perception of prisoners are a "group of welfare clients rather than dangerous outsiders"[108]
  • Policy is not influenced by sensationalisation of crime or victimisation (in Scandinavian countries the victim is compensated by the State) unlike in countries such as the USA and UK, where there is increased emphasis on the victims (e.g. restorative justice, family conferencing [109]) and an influential tabloid press.

Whilst it is possible to identify the conditions that have contributed to the Scandinavian penal system, there is no simple formula to its effectiveness (in terms of low prison populations and recidivism rates). Rather it is the product of a long history of egalitarian, pro-welfare societies. In this sense, one should not assume that this model could be easily transferred to a country like Scotland where the political structure and social conditions are different.

However, there are important lessons that can be learned from its approach, most notably the emphasis on community supervision and open prisons, the professionalisation of prison staff and the principle of normality, which underpins Scandinavia's humane approach to its prisoners and its prioritisation of reintegration (over retribution).

The Scandinavian approach is not entirely without its critics, however. For example, Norway's refusal to compromise the 'one man, one cell' rule and/or expand the prison estate has led, it is argued, to queues for prison places reaching nearly 3000 in 2006[110]. More recent online news reports (2014) have reported a waiting list for prison places of nearly 1200[111]. Norway has also been criticised for holding remand prisoners in isolation[112] (though more recently it has been reported that remand prisoners are being held with sentenced prisoners due to prison overcrowding[113]), and not allowing children to reside with their mothers in institutions. The increasingly diverse prison population (due to the influx of immigrants) has also presented challenges for Scandinavian countries who before now have dealt with a fairly homogenous group. Recent statistics (2013) suggest that there has been an increase in prison sentences in Norway, perhaps due to an increase in drug-related crime[114].


Email: Tamsyn Wilson

Back to top