Understanding Incarceration in the U.S.

In the time since my return from Scandinavia, I have continued my research into comparing the United States prisons to prisons around the world but first, I had to understand the system here in the United States. Jails, prisons, public, private-there are so many elements I needed to wrap my head around before I could make an educated comparison. Using the Federal Bureau of prisons website (https://www.bop.gov/locations/list.jsp) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics site (https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=13), I have created this diagram showing all of the different types of facilities we have here in the U.S. It is still a work in progress, as daily I find things to add and adjust on this diagram, but I believe I am on the right track.

As I continue to enhance this breakdown, I will also look into how other countries around the world break down their prisons systems; are there similar systems and how to others drastically differ from ours? The United States has the highest prison population in the world which may be why there is a need for such a system, but other countries such as China and Brazil also have very high inmate populations- are their systems similar or different?

It is difficult to compare the U.S. system to those of Scandinavia due to the drastic difference in not only total inmate population, but each of the Scandi countries is much smaller than the US; around 5 million per Scandi country when the U.S. is home to about 323 million people.

9. Halden Fengsel

Last but certainly not least, Halden Fengsel in Halden Norway is my final tour of a prison facility here in the Nordic countries. I met with warden Are Hoidal for most of the day on July 4th where we discussed Halden’s policies and design as the “Rolls Royce” of prisons, as it has been called previously.

Halden Prison is a high security prison for male inmates. Built in 2010, this innovative design is one-of-a-kind in Norway. The master plan appears much like a college campus located in a densely wooded and hilly area.

Upon arrival at the front door, however, there is no doubt you have arrived at a high security prison. The entire campus is bordere3d by a high concrete wall. “Maximum security outside, maximum freedom inside” is the motto.

Though I was not able to take my own photos inside of the prison, I am working with the warden to gain the images I need. I was luck however in that Mr. Hoidal was able to capture an image of me with the famous mural located in one of the exercise areas.

I am holding in this picture a cookbook which was created by the inmates, printed by the inmates, and a gift to me by the warden.

7. Sagsjon & 8. Hogsbo Fangelse


The prison at Sagsjon is a women’s facility located in Gothenburg city. The prison was not built to be in the city, but the growth of Gothenburg has surrounded the prison so that now is it receiving neighbors just beyond the low fence around the perimeter.

Proving that Swedish prisons aim to create a normative lifestyle for inmates while incarcerated, I found a midsommar pole just outside of the living unit. Midsommar is an important holiday in Sweden where people gather to celebrate and dance around the midsommar pole decorated with greenery and flowers. The inmates made this pole and were allowed to maintain the traditional celebration.


Inmates here at Sagsjon are encouraged to create works of art and maintain hobbies. A young troubled woman created several large installations of faces which she said allowed her to express the inner turmoil she faced daily. Out on release for some time now, prison officials said she called to check in and said she is doing well.

Just beyond the low “security fence”, which is really just a chain link fence marking the extent of the property, are several buildings that act as halfway houses for women who are about to be released. Here, they live and leave the premises to attend work and school; they are only held to a curfew and random drug testing as they ease their way back into society.


Hogsbo Prison is the final facility I visited in Sweden and it is located in the city of Gothenburg. Another high security facility for male inmates, I was not allowed to take my own photos, but the warden allowed me access to a few of the images I wanted through the help of the guard who led me through the facility, Mr. David Efraimmson.


This facility was filled with an abundance of daylight through the use of skylights and windows.


The art program is very popular and the studio is used often.


After visiting these two prisons, Kirsten and I hopped on a bus to Oslo. Arriving here, we were pleasantly surprised to find warmer temperatures! Thus far, the weather has been a chilly 50-65 degrees F, but here in Oslo it was sunny and 70-85 degrees.

5. Tidaholm & 6. Rodjan Fangelse


Tidaholm Fangelse is a maximum security men’s prison located 2 hours east of Gothenburg, Sweden. Due to the high security status, I was not allowed to bring a camera into the facility for my tour, but the warden agreed to send me images of the facility for my research.

Though this facility is maximum security, the master plan is similar to that of a campus. Inmates are separated into small groups and reside in one story buildings where they each have their own “cell” and must walk outside to work and other programs they participate in. In Sweden, every inmate, unless elderly or ill, is required to work or attend school as if they were employed at a full time job.

Above is a typical cell model showing the built in furniture, which is made at another prison in Sweden.

Just a short 45 minute drive away is located Rodjan prison in Mariestad, an open prison for male inmates. This is a drastic change from the way the prison in Tiderholm operates, in fact it is an operating farm. The only security fences here are meant to detain the dairy cows and goats.


This facility is designed for inmates who are nearing the end of their sentence.  They may apply to come here to Rodjan or to another open prison which will help them to transition back into society. A priority in Swedish prisons is helping the inmates to transition out of prison into more normative environments before going home in an effort to reduce recidivism rates.

Along with farming, inmates can earn certificates and training in various trades which will help them to get a job upon release. Prison facilities in Sweden do their best to find inmates jobs prior to their release. One example of this training is a metal shop where they teach the newest technologies for welding, CNC machining, and laser cutting.


Back to work

This afternoon, I had an introductory meeting with the Kriminalvarden, the Swedish Prison and Probation Service, to discuss my research and our plan for touring prison facilities in the Gothenburg region.

Mr. Majkel Vestergaard, the medical and health advisor for Kriminalvarden region Vast (west) and Mr. Ola Svensson, also of region Vast, organized a program of facilities to tour in the following days. On Wednesday, we would drive out of the city to visit two facilities roughly 2 hours east of Gothenburg and on Thursday, we were to visit two facilities in the city of Gothenburg. Mr. Vestergaard and Mr. Svensson are highly knowledgable about the prison system here in Sweden and gave me an abundance of knowledge in this meeting to prepare me for touring the Swedish prison facilities.

Following this meeting, I explored Gothenburg on a beautiful sunny day.

The botanical gardens

The botanical gardens

Skansen Kronan, a fortress on a hill where many people gather to picnic in the evenings and enjoy a great view of the city below. The fortress was built from 1687-1700, but was never attacked by enemies. In the 1900’s, the fort was used as a prison (yes!) and is currently a military museum.




Spirit Museum, wandering, and a bit of ABBA?


Because we love museums, we had to check out the Spirit Museum in Stockholm, a museum of alcohol related artwork and a history of spirits. And of course we had to experience the culture by sampling Sweden’s spirits.

Rocky at Spiritmuseum was the showcase art exhibit; works by Martin Kellerman who drew himself as a dog with a noose around his neck 20 years ago which then quickly became a popular comic strip in Sweden.

The weather thus far on the trip has been chilly with many bouts of rain then sunshine. After leaving the Sprit Museum, the downpour forced us to duck into the ABBA Museum, a homage to the 70’s band who originated in Stockholm, Sweden to wait out the rain in the café.

“Walk In, Dance Out” was their motto.

We could have danced, we could have jived-we could have had the time of our lives-IF they would have played at least one ABBA song during our visit.

BUT we did get sweet band t-shirts!