May 22

Mass Murder: Norway versus America

In Brief—A comparative look at how Norway and America treat felons convicted of murder. The case of mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik reveals the gap between the two countries.

Violence That Shocked a Nation—

Eight people were instantly killed in Oslo by the violent blast of a bomb. Sixty-nine people on Utøya island, mostly vacationing teen-agers died, shot in cold blood. Their murderer was Anders Behring Breivik.

Norway w: cloudsFreelance Norwegian journalist and author Åsne Seierstad wrote a powerful book about mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik titled “One of Us” covering the alienated Breivik’s life, his cold-blooded murders and his trial. You can read what I wrote in April 2015. “One of the Most Powerful Books Written” provides details that won’t be covered in this piece. Better yet, read the book.

In March of this year, in response to a petition filed by Breivik, a district judge ruled that Breivik’s solitary confinement constituted cruel and unusual punishment in contravention of the United Nations’ definition of “torture.” Needless to say, Norway will appeal that decision. The question to be determined on appeal is whether Breivik’s solitary confinement is appropriate.

What are the conditions of Breivik’s solitary confinement? In keeping with Norway’s effective humane approach to rehabilitating criminals, Breivik’s “cell” is a three-room suite, one for sleeping, one for studying and one for exercising. Additionally, he can exercise in the exercise yard, watch TV, read newspapers, use the computer (without Internet access), play video games, talk on the phone with his purported girlfriend, fix his own food and do his own laundry. He can meet with his lawyers, get medical attention and contact prison staff. Despite all this comfort, he claims he is being “tortured.” Though he is prevented from contacting and potentially influencing other prisoners, prison officials find him unrepentant—which Brevik readily admits—and dangerous. Thus, his solitary confinement.

The United Nations (UN) defines torture as “Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

Norway’s rate of recidivism—the rate at which former prisoners commit further crimes and must be returned to prison—is an astoundingly low 20% compared with America’s deplorable rate of between 68% and 76%. An American prison official refers to Norway’s prisons as ”prison utopia.” Norway’s penal policy is focused on rehabilitation. Prisoners are exposed to humane conditions that reward lawful behavior. By contrast, American prisons teach prisoners how to commit crimes. America’s prisons are known as ”crime factories.”

What is the purpose of incarceration? The reasons behind incarceration are 1) Deterence: prevention or discouragement of further crime; 2) Incapacitation: confinement to prevent further crimes in order to protect the public; 3) Retribution: vengeance or ”getting even”; 4) Rehabilitation: reforming or changing behavior for the better.

America has the largest prison population in the world. At roughly 716 prisoners per 100,000 people. That’s about 4.4 percent of the world’s population. The majority of those prisoners are people of color. In case you are one of those who believe slavery ended after the Civil War, it’s still alive in today’s prison system.

Mass murderer Anders Breivik is imprisoned in Norway. Norway practices rehabilitation that has proven successful. Though it is unlikely that Breivik will be freed after he has served twenty-one years, the maximum allowed unless extended, his is the perfect example of Norway’s humane penal system, a system with a far lower rate of recidivism.

By contrast, America’s harsh punitive approach creates criminals and has an appallingly high rate of recidivism. Breivik’s crime was horrible, but Breivik, the human, is treated with compassion. Is there is any question as to which is the superior system? Humanity pays.

Agree or disagree?


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    • Dave Meyers on May 22, 2016 at 18:52

    When you combine rules like, “Three strikes and you’re out”, and 10 or 15 year sentences for possession of small amounts of personal-use Marijuana with For-Profit, privately owned prisons, and mandatory sentencing, you have a mess on your hands. And…..the U.S has a mess on it’s hands.

    Our misdirected efforts in the so called “War on Drugs” coupled with overzealous courts such as those in Texas, keep pumping people into the prison system. All the while our failure to institute any sort of real attempt at rehabilitation makes for a prison environment that breeds, if not better criminals, than certainly hardened criminals, who are almost guaranteed to end up back in prison on a never ending cycle of ruin.

    The three-room-suit may be a bit too far, but the 8×8 foot box with a cot and a toilet go too far in the other direction, in my view. So do prison guards dressed in combat gear and a system mentality that suggests and promotes the ‘Them and Us” attitude.

    But, the real issue is how we deal with the root causes of the things that generate criminal behavior in the first place. Poverty and the lack of opportunity. The fact is that we DON’T deal with it.

      • Don Bay on May 23, 2016 at 06:54

      You’re right. It’s way past time to deal with the root causes. The problem is largely the Republicans who want the poor to suffer while they themselves get reelected. Forget humane in the United States, it’s every person for him/herself.The only way to solve this problem is to elect legislators who care about the people they are elected to serve.

      Norway is showing the way. Will America notice?

  1. You both are right on. It’s the shame of the world. The land of the free? Only for some.

      • Don Bay on May 23, 2016 at 07:01

      As I said to Dave, America’s voters have to elect legislators who care about the people they are elected to serve. Until that time, America will not be free. It’s past time to follow Norway’s lead and show some humanity toward everybody in the country, not just the few.

    • Donna on May 24, 2016 at 01:10

    yes, our prison system is terrible – although it varies from state to state. Most states and the federal govt. are finally realizing that what we are doing doesn’t work and are trying to design some type of prison reform that is more humane and also important – doesn’t cost as much.
    We visited our friend on Death Row just two days ago. He has been incarcerated for over 40 years, at least ten of those on Death Row. Like many states, the inmate can appeal his death sentence through the court system, and it becomes an endless series of court rulings, appeals, more briefs to a higher court, more appeals, then start all over. Tom, our friend, currently lives in a small cell, is allowed 1 hour a day in the “yard” for exercise, but chooses not to go because of the noise and because he feels threatened by the other inmates. He has TV and a system of emailing persons. He can have visitors, but only speaking with them through a plastic screen and over a telephone. He is allowed only one contact visit a year! – that’s really inhumane when he can’t even hug his wife but once a year. Being in solitary in the US is certainly different than in Norway.
    Tom is pretty mellow now, unlike his earlier years when he committed his crime(s). Most of the guards are decades younger than he is, and sometimes go to him for counseling!
    Tom will likely die in prison before he is executed. Idaho hasn’t executed anyone in at least a decade
    Idaho’s efforts at prison reform include more parole and probation officers, more flexibility for the judges, fewer mandatory sentences, cancelled contract with the private prison company (CCA) and more. I hope some good results from all of this.

      • Don Bay on May 24, 2016 at 15:24

      Meaningful reform is necessary in America…not just nibbling around the edges, but real meaningful reform. A start would be eliminating the death penalty. Other necessary reforms are eliminating solitary confinement, recognizing that rehabilitation is necessary, that prisoners can change, that delays in arraignment and sentencing must be eliminated, that prosecutors be required to give defense counsel exculpatory evidence, treating prisoners like humans, dumping private prisons where the emphasis is on saving money, fair juries and more. anything short of these is just nibbling around the edges.

      America is a punitive society. Politicians who make the laws show their “seriousness” by getting tough on crime. They add to the problem. As long as society fails to realize that those who commit crimes are human, too, the harshness that characterizes American will continue.

      Norway shows the way. America must pay attention.

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