You’re probably wondering what in the world I’m doing over 5,000 miles away from home in Norway…
During this trip—my first ever to Europe—I am part of a group of criminal justice reform activists who are exploring prisons in Norway. As I will share with you, they offer a dramatic contrast to carceral institutions here in the U.S.
On Monday, we visited Halden Prison, the world's most humane and modern high-security prison that houses no more than 228 of Norway’s citizens.
Within the facility there are trees and open spaces. The libraries include books, DVD’s, and CD’s. Each cell has only one occupant.
While the country of Norway has 40 prisons, its actual prison population is under 4,000. The 40 prisons are intentionally spread throughout the country so that incarcerated people can be near their families.
In Norway, the maximum sentence a person can receive is 21 years. While there is a mechanism in place that will allow prison officials to keep a person in prison beyond the 20 years, Norway does not have the death penalty.
People incarcerated in Halden are sentenced to detention, but they are not deprived of their rights as citizens in relations to education, health, work, religion, or social services.
In fact, they even retain their right to vote.
As you know, this is in stark contrast to how it happens in America – the land of the free – where we are advocating for ACA 6 just so that people on parole can have the right to vote.
Unlike the “justice” system in America, Norwegians recognize that a person’s right to vote is fundamental, inalienable, and part of healthy and normal citizenship.
In fact, in Norway, prisons operate under what’s called The Principle of “Normality.” This means that the detention is the punishment, and it should not be any more burdensome than is necessary on the grounds of security.
Under “Normality,” incarcerated people should not be subject to supplementary punishments by being deprived of benefits such as opportunities for social contact through visits, furloughs and telephone contact, and being permitted to follow developments in society through mass media.
Employees in the correctional and administrative collaborative agencies are expected to be role models of good behavior and should provide feedback in a way that corresponds with what incarcerated people will encounter in the community. Halden Prison is known as the world's most humane maximum security prison.
Witnessing this is a solemn reminder that we are overdue for a system overhaul. Let’s reimagine a society that treats all people with the dignity, respect, and care that they deserve – so that confinement rehabilitates and prepares men and women to come back home.
I look forward to keeping you informed as my trip continues throughout the rest of the week and to returning to California with a road map for reforming our prison system.
Thank you for being with me—and with ARC—on this journey.
On Thursday, we visited Bastoy Prison, a minimum-security facility on an island three kilometers from the mainland and about an hour from Oslo.
As we walked toward the ferry to the island, I noticed two men dressed in fluorescent clothing operating the ferry. I later came to know these men as Kai and Ole. Kai, who was serving a 13-year sentence for murder, had earned his way to this minimum-security prison. Ole was serving time for a drug charge and had also graduated from a maximum-security prison. Had I not been told, I would never have thought that these men were prisoners: they were clearly professionals who were well-trained at operating the ferry.
Our journey across the water took about twenty minutes. As we landed on the island, I took in the beauty of my surroundings. This did not look like any prison I had ever seen, and it certainly didn’t look like a facility that would house 125 prisoners whose convictions ranged from possession to murder.
We were driven by horse-drawn carriages to the living area of the men housed at Bastoy. Upon arrival, we were asked to turn in our phones to the Correctional Officer that would be our escort for the day. Later we would learn that all the men that are confined to the island can have a cell phone. While they cannot receive any calls on these phones, they are permitted to make calls freely. When I asked the officer about security concerns, his reply was they have all of the information they need right in the phones. e ferry that ca
The structures, dating from the early 19th Century, were all well maintained. As the warden shared the history of Bastoy, we learned that the island was at first a boys’ reformatory that came to be known as Devils Island: the facility was closed, due to the abuse of the children that were housed there. For some time, the island was repurposed and used as a treatment facility for alcoholics. And then, in 1984, the island was converted to a Federal Prison.
Today, each resident is assigned his own room. Though the island is in fact a prison, it doesn’t feel like a prison at all. It’s hard to describe such a beautiful place as anything other than a beautiful island. In addition, the collegial relationship between staff and the men in the system is unlike like anything I’ve ever witnessed in a carceral facility.
Some of what I learned about Norway’s social system in general was mind blowing. College is inexpensive—only about $60.00 per semester—and that’s all the way through attaining a Ph.D. All Norwegians receive free health care, and of course all Norwegians can vote regardless of whether they are incarcerated or not. We were driven by horse-drawn carriages to the living area of the men housed at Bastoy.
So, how does Norway achieve a recidivism rate that is only about half of that of the U.S.: only 25% compared with close to 50% across America—and more than 65% in California?
In a nutshell, the Norwegian justice system recognizes that rehabilitation is key—and that dehumanization of those imprisoned is nothing but counterproductive to attaining that goal.
Thank you for supporting me in my new role as Executive Director at ARC, for taking this journey alongside me, and for agreeing that the U.S. system of criminal justice needs desperately to be reformed. I am grateful for the opportunity to see Norway’s example of what’s possible when you put rehabilitation first. I hope that you will continue to partner us as we seek to apply what we have learned in Norway to fixing our broken system in California.
During my 24 years of incarceration I always felt that I had no voice. I felt that I could not speak out against the injustices that I experienced and witnessed. I believed that if I spoke out it would cost me the freedom I dreamed of and wished for. During quiet moments of contemplation in the cage I was assigned to, I recognized the power of both the spoken word and the written word. I pledged to myself that once I was free I would speak out and represent those that remained in the belly of the best…. The Prison Industrial Complex. Since I’ve been home I have struggled with speaking out, and truly allowing my voice to be heard for a number of reasons. First, because so many feel the need to speak for me, or those like me the “formerly incarcerated.” It seems as though in many instances our lived experience, our trauma, our stories are not being presented by us, or are co-opted by some that are considered experts in the field of criminal justice reform. Who can best explain to me and those like me what I can expect to experience once I’m released? How to best overcome the barriers that I’ll face once I’m free?
I truly appreciate the passion and belief in this just cause. It is also my belief that the leaders of this cause, ending mass incarceration and reforming the criminal just system should be those that have been impacted the most by it. I admire the dedication, and commitment, I see, but I don’t need anyone to speak for me. I need for my voice to be heard, so please make space for me. From the deepest depths of my heart I am eternally grateful for the space that you have created. I ask you now to allow me and those like me, the “formerly incarcerated” to speak our truths, our realities, our lived experience in this space. Support us and allow us to lead this crusade against the injustices in our criminal just system.
It is a fact that those that are closet to the problem are closet to the solution, and yet furthest from the resources needed to address the problem.
As I begin to blog, I want to make clear that these will be my opinions, and are not representative of anyone or any organization. I say this because I know that my views may not always be popular.
I speak my truth from my perspective based on my life experiences, and I will do so unapologetically.
I grew up in South Central Los Angeles during the height of the gang and crack crisis. At that time, Los Angeles was called "The gang capital of the nation", and I was then a part of the problem. I was a gang member and a crack dealer. By the time I was 17 I had been shot twice, stabbed once, and my mothers house had been shot up by rival gang members. By the age of 18 I was in state prison sentenced to life. On July 12, 2012, after 24 years of incarceration and a court ruling in my favor, I was granted parole.