Dr. Bill Wright on another way to run a prison


I have previously written about Doc Wright, and his fabulous book Maximum Insecurity. Dr. Wright has written a new book that I hope to review soon. Jailhouse Doc is a memoir of his time as Medical Director of the El Paso Criminal Justice Center in Colorado Springs.

“Hoards of desperate people fresh from the streets, homeless addicts, illegal aliens, and gangbangers all ruled by a corrupt sheriff and his concubine sidekick made the supermax look almost pastoral. Told with humor and biting wit by the best-selling author of Maximum Insecurity, Jailhouse Doc follows Dr. Wright and his struggles with scamming inmates, corporate bureaucrats, and a sheriff who wants to be a doctor.”

For now, I am privileged to post Chapter 30 of Jailhouse Doc.* If  you care about prisons and inmates and money and crime and recidivism and humanity, you will be interested in Wright’s serious observations about another way to run a prison:


Chapter 30 – Philosophy: Enter at Your Own Risk

America is the land of the second chance—and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.” – George W. Bush

In my country we go to prison first and then become President.” – Nelson Mandela


After nine years at this game of correctional medicine, I’ve got some thoughts on jails, prisons and in particular our system in the U.S. We’ve got lots of agendas when it comes to putting people behind bars, and not all of them seem very productive.

The first thing to remember is that most people in jails and prisons get out. They’re your neighbors again, working (or not) in your community around you, your spouse, and your children.

It’s a sad fact that the majority of people released from U.S. jails and prisons commit further offenses and head back behind bars again to repeat the cycle. What’s wrong with these guys? Didn’t they learn their lesson the first time?

Well, they did. They just learned the wrong lesson.

When someone commits a crime against another person, there’s a lot of emotion on both sides. What we want is for everything to be put back the way it was, like nothing ever happened. In this world, that’s not going to happen.

As the next best thing, society wants punishment of some kind. Just like when we were children, if we did something wrong and were punished, we’d learn to not do that again.

It seems reasonable, but it makes a lot of assumptions.

It assumes we’re in an environment where we have a model for better behavior and encouragement to follow that model. Jail isn’t famous for being a nurturing and supportive environment. Mom and Dad aren’t here, but Professor Butch and Professor Bubba are. Guess what the lesson today is. Breaking and Entering 102 or maybe Sexual Predation 203. Most inmates don’t learn new skills in jail; they learn new hustles.

So what do we do with thieves, rapists, and murderers? We might take a look at the Swedish model.

At over 700 imprisoned per 100,000, the United States leads the world in incarcerating its citizens. That’s like locking up the entire population of Houston, Texas, the fourth-largest city in the U.S. It’s more than ten times the rate in Sweden. The incarceration rate, while climbing in the U.S., is falling in Sweden, down a whopping 6 percent last year. Are we missing something?

If you look at prisons in Scandinavia, like Skien maximum security prison in Sweden or the island prison of Bastoy in Norway, we see a very different physical setup from supermax prisons in the U.S.

In Colorado’s maximum security prison, Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP), inmates are confined 23/7 to individual cells with steel bunk, desk, stool and toilet. A solid steel door with a tray slot for passing medication and food is the only contact a prisoner has with the outside. Exercise is also solitary in a spare room with a chin-up bar as the only furnishing.

In Sweden, their prison rooms look like a Motel 6 with TV, computers, bookshelves, rugs on the floor, curtains at the windows and separate areas for reading and recreation. The prisoners, with some exceptions, aren’t isolated, but are part of a community where each has a job with responsibilities and free time. They live in small, brightly painted wooden bungalows that accommodate up to six people.

Every man has his own room, and they share kitchen and other facilities. The idea is to get them used to the social situation they’ll encounter when they’re released. They earn about $10 per day and get a food allowance of about $120 per month. They fix their own breakfasts and dinners from items available in the prison’s supermarket.

For these prisoners, loss of freedom is their only punishment. Administration puts emphasis on cultivating individual responsibility and functioning in a community environment. Recidivism is about 30 percent in Sweden and only 16 percent for those released from Norway’s Bastoy prison, versus 65-70 percent in the U.S.

Bastoy’s governor, Arne Nilsen, a clinical psychologist by profession, makes a point: “In the law, being sent to prison has nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison, they are likely to behave like animals when released.”

Granted when I went to work at CJC I’d already had years of experience in corrections, but many start the job with zero corrections knowledge. In contrast, Norway requires three years of training to become a prison guard.

So is treating prisoners like human beings rather than people who should be shunned the secret to the Scandinavian success? That’s certainly part of it.

A second feature is placing greater emphasis on reaching young people at risk for trouble before they get into the formal justice system. It’s a compelling fact that 80 percent of death row inmates in the U.S. are products of the juvenile justice system.

Maybe these men could have been rehabilitated if reached early enough in their lives or if they were taught a different way when they started down the slippery slope of antisocial behavior. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s something we should think about in view of the Swedish model’s superior results.

Although it’s expensive to spend on preventive measures like education and social work to intervene in bad situations, it’s more expensive to let the problems develop. One estimate claims that $1 spent in prevention saves $17 in later costs of property loss and incarceration, let alone personal misery. Like the old oil filter commercial said, you can pay me now, or you can pay me later.

Regardless of one’s outlook on punishment, I think we can all agree that the best outcome of any crime is if it never happens. I’m way out of my depth proposing sweeping social change, but I think we need to rethink our concept of imprisonment. Is vengeance better than rehabilitation?

Any crime is horrible for the victim. The desire to lock up the perpetrator and throw away the key is strong. Society has a different stake. Most of the offenders are going to be out again, and we have an interest to prevent additional offenses.

Is loss of freedom enough of a punishment? Having worked around that atmosphere for nine years, I can vouch that loss of freedom is a major deal. If we could make the time in jail or prison actually productive for the offender, maybe it will be productive for us as well. Maybe treating criminals like human beings is an idea whose time has come.

Please tell me what you think.


*Doctor Wright has given me a one-time license to publish Chapter 30. He retains the copyright. No republication of Chapter 30 is permitted without Dr. Wright’s express written permission.

15 responses

  1. Great and well written article. The problem is selling it to a vengeful society.

    What he says is objectively verifiable and more likely true than not however, that is not the test American citizens apply.

    The people “in control” of our society are politicians pandering to ordinary voters. Neither the politicians nor their electors, by and large, were people who had the prison experience and they are giving expert opinions on what it ought to be. (Humorously, but with some truth, the definition of an American is someone with strong opinions about everything whether he knows anything about it or not”) More specifically, they are people from environments and backgrounds wherein the rewards were greater than the detriments when you were isolated (go to your room -stand in the corner -take a time out) and they therefore believe they “learned their lesson”. “My Dad spanked me and by God I learned my lesson so we need to do that to everyone who needs to learn a lesson because it works”. Really?

    They illogically apply their personal model to (force it upon) those to whom it doesn’t apply and expect the same results as they themselves had – even though it is obvious the controlling personal motivations in play were never close to analogous to the the ones they themselves had.

    Until we start applying a model formed from the predictable effects of particular treatment on the set of people whose motivations produced unlawful behavior (rather than one formed from the fears and other motives of those whose didn’t), we should not rationally expect an outcome that produces positive results in the prison population. After all, who among us really responds well to “do it my way or I will punish you more”.

    As they say in the NFL, “C’mon Man!”.

  2. What a load of hooey. Jess, how else is Sweden and US different than just the amenities of their prisons? Since it’s not really the case that people who leave prison return to MY neighborhood. We are a heterogeneous culture and it makes no sense to compare us to countries that are largely homogenous.

    Judge, do you honestly believe that the statement “It assumes we’re in an environment where we have a model for better behavior and encouragement to follow that model” is logically connected with the premise before it regarding retributive? C’mon Man!, you should know it’s not.

  3. I’m not an expert on criminal law, nor do I believe I know more about social change than anyone else. But our current system clearly doesn’t work — why not try something radically different?

    I’ll admit that I find it satisfying to see perpetrators of horrendous crimes punished. I’m as guilty as the next person of glorifying violence in my choice of movies or TV shows. I find it hard to reconcile how often I root for the bad guys on TV, and yet feel that our prison system is doing something wrong. Apparently, I’m the living embodiment of Orwell’s worst nightmare.

    There is something to be said about punishment, and something to be said about positive reinforcement. Finding a balance between the two is a reasonable goal.

    Thank you for posting this chapter of Dr. Wright’s book. It sounds like a fascinating read.

  4. Dr. Wright get’s it right but why stop there? If the goal was to actually reduce crime (and improve society) in this country our friends in Northern Europe have a LOT more to teach us besides how to run a prison.

  5. “If only Sweden were more afflicted with Negroes, they would understand the importance of dehumanizing their prison population.”

  6. I suspect it would be hard to find a reputable book on corrections published in the last 50 years in the USA which does not note that most prisoners are released into society, that most reoffend, that our prisons are advanced schools of criminality, and that the Scandinavians do it better. As a nation we have ignored all those lessons and made the prison system worse. Why? Nobody got elected crusading for prison reform, nobody makes money out of prison reform, we have a them and us view of convicts compounded by issues of race, and while the Scandinavian systems are cheaper in terms of social cost the taxpayer costs are higher. I suspect 50 years from now decent folks like Dr. Wright will be telling us the same things. Maybe this is some of Reinhold Niebuhr’s empirical proof of original sin.

  7. This is pretty superficial, and very outdated. For ten years, Sweden’s super liberal prison policy has been migrating toward the norm. It started with a series of escapes. Now, it seems Swedes want prisons to be more like prisons.

    Comparing a “supermax” to what was a very liberal Swedish prison is wholly improper. Sweden has a maximum security prison and maximum security units in other prisons. Our “supermax” prisons hold prisoners that can’t behave behave in regular prisons, pose a threat to other prisoners or may become victims to other prisoners.

    Our standard prisons offer loads of programs. Drug programs, vocational programs, religious group programs. Prisoners also live communally, and are mostly free to roam the facility.

    And medical care? They get it faster than you and your insurance plan.

    Sweden has about the population of New Jersey and Stockholm has about the climate of Anchorage. Part of the country is in ice. The country hasn’t been to war in a couple hundred years. Are the recidivism rates due to the prison culture? Are the crime rates the result of weather? After all, crime rates go down in this country in the winter. Are the crime rates lower because of a societal attitude?

    Wright starts with a conclusion and works toward a convenient but outdated cause. It’s anti-logic. Here’s one: Sweden has a high rape rate because it’s cold.

  8. Skink, Where is our standard prison , given at least 51 prison systems, DC and military used to have separate systems though I am not sure anymore? While uncontrollable behavior was justification of supermaxs , they have become a separate type of punishment and they make Alcatraz look homey. Sweden has the population of NJ and NJ has its own prisons as does Alaska. Cultural differences among American States are often large. Scandinavia is undergoing a large diversification of population because of migration. Weather and crime? Not many defenders of hot winds caused the Mafia in Sicily any more.
    Obviously social attitudes and culture, for example culture of poverty , influence crime and recidivism rates, but comparisons across countries still allow assertions like, we are doing so much worse and our systems are so different that we could do some copying and improve things

  9. The joke in Iowa is that we have a low incarceration rate because of the high caliber of the Iowa criminals. I suspect that may also be the case in Norway and Sweden.

  10. All of our prison systems operate under the same procedures, more-or-less. You can thank me, you and our ilk for the lack of local standards.

    The “supermax” is for behavior and vulnerability. You can thank us for that need as well. What would you do with a prisoner that constantly attacks other prisoners?

    Weather doesn’t cause crime, and that’s the point.

    Things may be done better to better protect society. But the discussion must flow from intellectual honesty, not this drivel.

  11. Skink. I am dubious about standard prison, though my knowledge may be dated. Need for maximum security facilities not in doubt whether supermax is overkill debatable. Weather was a joke, book long out of print, but there once was such a theory.
    Drivel is my native language, but Dr.Wright is a participant observer and anecdotal evidence should not be dismissed as drivel
    Honored to be a member of your ilk.

  12. Coffee Cup,

    Dr. Wright is not a bleeding heart. Read his book Maximum Insecurity and you will see the foregoing to be true. All the best.


  13. Judge:
    I submit for your consideration an article from the NYT about the recently appointed New York City Commissioner of Corrections. His philosophy of treating prisoners humanely (derisively referred to by some as “Hug-A-Thug”) is very much in keeping with the tenor of Dr. Wright’s attitudes concerning incarceration: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/05/nyregion/joseph-ponte-new-yorks-new-corrections-commissioner-faces-challenge-at-rikers.html?_r=0.

  14. Clearly an enlightened and correct view. Our society is completely incapable of such a transcendent approach to dealing with people who violate the law. By the by, if we cannot deal in an enlightened manner with the second amendment there is less hope of doing so with incarceration. I know they are different issues but in this country there are some things we cannot discuss in a civil way. These are two of them.

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