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What's Right with Sweden? Prisons Close as Demand Falls

With focus on rehabilitation and more reasonable sentencing, nation shutters four state-run jails

- Jon Queally, staff writer

Prison numbers in Sweden, which have been falling by around 1% a year since 2004, dropped by 6% between 2011 and 2012 and are expected to do the same again both this year and next year. (Photograph: Paul Doyle/Alamy)As study after study (after study) in the United States over the last several decades have shown a prison population explosion that demands additional, larger, more expensive—and increasingly privatized—prisons, the trend in Sweden might hold a lesson on how to end the ever-expanding incarceration rate.

In fact, instead of building new prisons or holding steady with the number they have, the Swedish government—citing a rapid fall in demand—has now ordered the closure of four prisons.

"We have seen an out-of-the-ordinary decline in the number of inmates," Nils Öberg, the head of Sweden's prison and probation services, explained to the Guardian. "Now we have the opportunity to close down a part of our infrastructure that we don't need at this point of time."

As the Guardian reports:

Prison numbers in Sweden, which have been falling by around 1% a year since 2004, dropped by 6% between 2011 and 2012 and are expected to do the same again both this year and next, Öberg said.

As a result, the prison service has this year closed down prisons in the towns of Åby, Håja, Båtshagen, and Kristianstad, two of which will probably be sold and two of which will be passed for temporary use to other government authorities.

Öberg said that while nobody knew for sure why prison numbers had dropped so steeply, he hoped that Sweden's liberal prison approach, with its strong focus on rehabilitating prisoners, had played a part.

Swedish authorities explain that this more "liberal" approach includes both the rehabilitation cited, but also a new sentencing structure that has reduced the terms given for drug offenses, theft, and other less serious crimes.

At 112th in the world, Sweden has long been rated well in indexes that calculate the percentage of its population the remains incarcerated. In contrast, the United States has the most heavily-jailed population in the world.

Again, from the Guardian:

According to data collected by the International Centre for Prison Studies, the five countries with the highest prison population are the US, China, Russia, Brazil and India.

The US has a prison population of 2,239,751, equivalent to 716 people per 100,000. China ranks second with 1,640,000 people behind bars, or 121 people per 100,000, while Russia's inmates are 681,600, amounting to 475 individuals per 100,000.

And, as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported earlier this year, the U.S. prison population continues to rise at an unprecedented rate, both federally and across many states. Those rates lead to over-crowding, growing costs, and increasingly unsafe institutions. As an Al-Jazeera investigation, following a report from the Government Accountability Office, found:

The overcrowded facilities have contributed to a multibillion dollar demand for private prisons. The industry argues it is helping the government save money. But others argue that for-profit prisons only increase the incentive to incarcerate more people.

Almost half of those incarcerated in federal prisons are drug offenders. Another 16 percent of inmates are in prison for offences related to weapons, explosives and arson. Those convicted of immigration violations make up 12 percent of the federal prison population.

And the impact of mass imprisonment spreads far beyond the prison walls. 

Sociologists have found that the rise in incarceration rates reduce social mobility and ensure both prisoners and their families remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.

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