Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Don’t Laugh at Norway

Maybe the wegians know what they’re doing and we don’t!
by Charlie Leck

I went into a prison, the first time, in 1965. I was a graduate student and was sent there to find out about prison life in America. That was well over 40 years ago, but certain sounds and aromas remain in my memory as clearly as the visual impact my visit had on me. Maximum security prisons in America are not very pretty or comfortable places.

“And that’s the way it should be,” shouts nearly every American of whatever economic standing, political bent or religious persuasion. However, most of these people have never visited the deep interior of one of our prisons.

I distinctly remember the sounds. First there was the perpetual clanging and banging of steel cell doors – sliding open or closed or banging shut. Then there was the constant murmur of prisoners communicating with one another from cell to cell or even level to level in a huge open atrium-like central building.

On that initial visit, a guard guided me down a walkway that ran along one of the levels and passed cell after cell occupied by men who stared out at me in a dull and incurious way. From the cells came a stale, flat and offensive odor. Beds, if you could call them that, were very narrow and held very thin mattress pads. They were hinged to the wall and hung from chains at either end so they could be lifted out of the way to provide a bit more space and allow the floor to be easily scrubbed and the cell to be searched.

The dining room was vast, with long, long tables strung completely across the room. Prisoners filed in, slid past a massive cafeteria counter and received their plates filled with miserable and tasteless prison food. Cafeterias are dangerous places in a prison. Fights can erupt in an instant and often do. Guards glare down on the men from catwalk corridors that ring the arena. The sound of a thousand men eating together and mumbling to each other, often in whispered tones, is quite unforgettable.

Shower rooms were dungeon like and damp, musty and odorous. Again, they were dangerous areas where fights often broke out. Outdoor exercise areas were nothing more than places to walk in the open air, surrounded by vast, tall, stone prison walls.

American prisons are not pretty places and it is good, I guess, that most people never get to see the intestines of them.

Again, the public shouts, “Good! It’s where a criminal belongs!”


I was driving along in my car the other day and I heard some puerile talk show host blabbering about a new prison the Norwegians had constructed.

“Finer than most luxury hotels,” the host was saying. “Murals and fine art on the walls, flat screen televisions in every cell, which are actually private, single rooms with handsome furniture including a desk and chair and a private bathroom. There are sound studios and an elaborate gymnasium better than the ones in our schools. And even a climbing wall!”

Halden Prison, about which the talking head was spouting, also has a chapel, a library, sports fields and an attractive, comfortable visiting area. Quite amazingly, there is color – bright, vivid colors are everywhere and fine artwork is on display where prisoners can view and examine it. And, there are no bars at the Halden Prison. Each prisoner has a window to the outside world – a room with a view (they are security windows that no prisoner is going to be able to break).

Callers rang up the show in record numbers, mocking the wiegians for what they’d done to coddle the criminal element. Some claimed it was rewarding crooks instead of punishing them.

“Thank God we don’t do that in America!”


The second time I visited an American prison was in about 1967. A prisoner had reached out to me by letter – a boy of 17 – asking for my help and telling me he wanted to get his life in order. After making sure I was on his approved visitor list, I drove up to St. Cloud to see him. We sat in a crowded visiting room and he told me the story of his life in crime since his teen years had begun. It was his third stay, already, in this maximum security prison for youthful offenders.

I knew the boy’s mother. That’s how he found out about me. She begged me to help him. Optimistic and hopeful, I began corresponding with him and visiting every few weeks. We talked about his future and how he would change and move on as a hard-working, honest and responsible member of the community.

After several months, as a result of some letters I wrote to officials, promising to mentor and guide the boy, he was paroled. Quickly, he virtually disappeared into the dark places in the city. He rarely kept an appointment with me and he missed appointments with his parole officer. He was drinking and using drugs and not working. It wasn’t very difficult to figure out how he was underwriting his habits. One night he was picked up and thrown back in the clink, but, this time, it was into the hard-core prison for adults in Stillwater.

I visited with him again, but, on those several occasions, his promises and oaths rang hollow. He couldn’t lock his eyes on mine. His nerves were jangled and, as if cold, he shook constantly. He spoke in whispered tones about how he was being abused. He told me I had to get him out or he would be killed.

I knew my pleas to any authorities would ring hollow if I tried that routine again. I could only listen to his hopeless chatter. We continued to correspond and my file of letters from him grew thicker and thicker (I have it even yet, near at hand here). He did his time and was released.

He didn’t come to me. I never saw him. In some ways I was relieved.

One spring evening, when I was not at home, but my wife and children were, he came in the dark and tried to break into the house for some unknown reason that only makes me tremble when I consider what it may have been. Fortunately, solid locks and his own ineptitude prevented him from gaining entry.

Years later, from prison, he would write and confess the intended crime and apologize. I had moved on and, like the rest of society, given up on him. He was a lost soul and a victim of bad parenting, a bad school system, a pressure-packed social system and rotten prisons. I can only guess about where – in what horrible place – he might be today, if he is alive at all.

America’s prison and corrections system doesn’t work very well. It is a holding pen, separating the bad guys for a time from the good and righteous people. A man or boy usually goes into an American prison because he is a bad guy. He comes out even worse and in all likelihood and statistically he will return there again.

Maybe, in Norway, they have something figured out that we don’t understand in America. Perhaps it is easier to work with a man and have some significant effect on him if you treat him humanely and decently. Perhaps!

I know we, in this nation, haven’t figured it out and I’m not going to pretend to understand this immense issue!

Here are some photos of the prison, in case you’re interested. Following the photographs you’ll find a couple of links that may also interest you.


  1. Very well done.

    Our justice system, from the streets to the courts to the prisons and back again are broken.

  2. Extraordinary story. Thanks so much for sharing it.