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How to make prisons more humane

A North Dakota prison official tries to take a page from Norway.

Inmates sit in the county jail in Williston, North Dakota
Inmates sit in the county jail in Williston, North Dakota.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Karianne Jackson was working for the North Dakota prison system in 2015 when a trip to Norway changed her life.

There, she saw a prison with no bars and no uniformed guards. Instead, prisoners lived in small cottages with common areas, private bedrooms, even kitchens with real cups, real dishes, and real knives. Compare that to US prisons, which feature next to no privacy and frequent use and abuse of solitary confinement. Norway found that treating prisoners like human beings, and ensuring a fine life for them, aided their rehabilitation and reduced their odds of returning. Jackson started thinking: What if I could make the US prison system a bit more like that?

On the latest Future Perfect, we talk to Jackson about her efforts to make the North Dakota system a little more like Norway’s and what she learned about her inmates, and humanity, when she started taking rehabilitation seriously. She tells us about letting prisoners shop at Walmart or talk to policymakers at the Capitol, about building them modular housing units with their own rooms where they can watch TV in privacy, and about the emotional difficulty of her decision to “treat this person who murdered someone’s loved one kindly, and value him as a person.”

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Further reading:

  • Jessica Benko in the New York Times on the “radical humaneness” of Norway’s Halden Prison.
  • Dashka Slater in Mother Jones on Karianne Jackson’s “Norway experiment” in North Dakota.
  • Vox’s German Lopez explains mass incarceration in the United States.

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