As we have learned throughout this class, there is really no true international uniformity to the way people are treated by their governments or officials in different nations around the world. Different nations and regions of the globe have different ideologies and political and civil beliefs, as well as ideas about human rights. In some countries you can freely take part in government as an independent citizen, and in others you can be severely punished even executed for speaking ill of the government. One of the ways to understand how a particular nation’s beliefs, especially those regarding human rights, are manifested is by looking at its criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to incarceration.
There are many different forms of punishment and incarceration around the world. Some countries take more of a utilitarian direction and attempt to rehabilitate prisoners so as to protect society by preventing crime through knowledge, while others are more eager to seek retribution for crimes that have been committed against the state itself. Two nations in particular, the United States and Sweden, are at opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of incarceration practices. How do these two nations compare when it comes to the human rights of incarcerated people? By looking at the International Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and comparing them with the policies and the physical and mental treatment of prisoners within the Swedish and the U.S. prison systems, we can determine to what extent these two nations are in compliance with adhering to basic human rights among people deprived of liberty.
When it comes to the treatment of prisoners, there are not many countries quite as polar opposite as Sweden and the United States. In Sweden, for example, inmates work every day and are paid a minimum wage for their labor, while in the United States inmates work meaningless jobs, or jobs that benefit the system only, and are paid very little to nothing for their labor (Derrick, Scott, Hutson 2004). Based on the Mandela Rules and the accepted international approach for the treatment of prisoners, which of these two countries is most in accordance with the international standard?
As we have gone over many times, human rights are a highly complex framework of rights that differ among the many regions of the world. This is also true when it comes to the treatment of prisoners. The Mandela Rules are the accepted international minimum treatment standard, hence the name The International Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Looking at these standards we can get an idea of the framework that a prison system is ideally created under. The original Standard Minimum Rules were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1957, the new rules, known as the “Mandela Rules” and named after former South African President and freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela who served 27 years in prison for fighting for human rights, were adopted by the General Assembly in 2015. It must be said that these rules are not the supreme law of the world when it comes to the treatment of prisoners. As preliminary observation 1 of the Mandela Rules state, these rules seek only what is generally accepted as being good principles and practice in the treatment of prisoners and prison management (G.A. resolution 70/175). It is understood that some nations do not have the same capabilities as other more powerful nations and cannot offer the same resources.
Much like other frameworks for human rights, the Mandela Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, while not necessarily legally binding, are the ideals under which the treatment of incarcerated people in any given nation state should be modelled after. The Mandela Rules are the internationally accepted guidelines to how prisons should operate and to what extent are the rights of people deprived of liberty. As we have learned in this class, every human rights framework has basic principles at its foundation. The Mandela Rules, although directed at people who may or may not have committed a crime – all people in prison are certainly not, guilty – are no different; they seek to promote universality, indivisibility, participation, accountability, transparency, and non-discrimination. For instance, under the basic principles of the Mandela Rules, rule 1 states that all prisoners shall be treated with respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings. Rule 2, section 1 promotes non-discrimination and protects the moral precepts of prisoners (G. A. resolution 70/175). In essence the Mandela Rules seek to promote humanity within the many prison systems around the world, where humanity is often forgotten.
However, as we look at data from different prison systems, we can see that they are certainly not all created equal and some adhere to the Mandela Rules better than others. Taking into account rule 4 of the Mandela Rules, which says that nations should work to reduce recidivism and promote education, we can make a direct comparison between Sweden and the United States. Looking at the Swedish prison system, we can see a nation that seeks to promote rehabilitation and education. “We Break The Vicious Cycle”, is the slogan for the Kriminalvarden, the Swedish Prison and Probation Service that is tasked with housing convicted prisoners and accused persons awaiting hearings and sentences around the nation. In recent years, Sweden has closed a number of prisons due to lowering recidivism rates, which, according to Zeeshan Aleem, of Mic.com, was around 40 percent as of 2015. This is in stark contrast to the United States which, over a nine-year period had a recidivism rate of 89 percent (Bureau of Justice 2018).
As a whole, the Swedish prison system revolves around rehabilitation with a major focus on eventually returning prisoners back to society as positively functioning citizens. Nils Oberg, the Director-General of the Kriminalvard, has said that his administration's role is not to punish, the punishment is the prison sentence and being deprived of freedom (James 2014). The U.S. on the other hand, out of 200 billion dollars a year spent on criminal justice, spends very little in terms of rehabilitation and education services. In fact, in a report published by the Vera Institute of Justice in 2012, it was found that the average cost of prison rehabilitation and education by state, is roughly 6 million dollars a year; compared to 25 million dollars a year for correctional employee benefits and pensions. The lack of any meaningful rehabilitation training is the driving force behind the high recidivism rate in the United States. In addition, it only very loosely adheres to rule 4 of the Mandela Rules. Most inmates in U.S. prisons are only very minimally educated with a G.E.D., and for those inmates that already have a high school diploma, any higher learning classes are only available at great cost. It was only very recently, in 2015, that it became possible for inmates in U.S. prisons to use Federal Pell grants for correspondence courses (diZerega 2020).
The Swedish prison system aims to “treat” an inmate as opposed to the U.S. which only seeks to “punish”. In the U.S., correctional staff are trained more like security guards compared to Sweden which trains its staff in all manner of rehabilitative practices. Within the Swedish prison system, correctional officers are also counselors to inmates. There is no “us versus them” mentality like we have in the United States. There is constant tension between officers and inmates in the U.S. This is due in large part to the lack of any communication capabilities between officers and inmates, and an even larger lack of proper training of officers within the U.S. Rule 76 of the Mandela Rules call for proper training of correctional staff. This includes understanding the psychosocial needs of prisoners as well as mental health issue detection. The Swedish penal system trains their prison officers in all of these areas, in clear compliance with the Mandela Rules (European Trade Union Institute). Corrections officers in the U.S. usually can’t even administer basic first aid, let alone be able to assist with a mental health issue.
Looking at the daily physical operations of prison facilities, rule 12 of the Mandela Rules, stipulate that, optimally, if a prisoner is to be housed in a cell they should be by themselves. Generally, inmates should be housed by themselves unless they are in a dormitory. If being put in a dormitory, inmates should be properly screened to make sure that they are a good match to be with the other prisoners. In the U.S. many prisons are strictly “double bunk” cells, Five Points Correctional Facility in New York, for instance, houses all inmates two people to a cell. I personally spent about eight months in that particular facility. The cells are quite big; however, it is not the norm for the rest of the prison system. Usually, prison cells in the U.S. are about 5 feet by 6 feet, not even really big enough to do a push-up but still with two people squeezed in there. Swedish prison cells on the other hand, are arranged as small apartments that inmates share together. Even the highest security Swedish prisons have dorm like cell accommodations. While not necessarily adhering to rule 12 specifically, Sweden uses cell size as another form of rehabilitation. Inmates who stay in a room together often work together to cook and clean, as well as learn things from each other in a semi-comfortable environment (McLaughlin 2019). With the stress of being crammed next to someone that you don’t even know in a tiny U.S. prison cell, there is very little space for learning new things.
Moving on to the healthcare of inmates, rule 24 of the Mandela Rule say that it is the responsibility of the state to supply healthcare to inmates which should be free of charge and discrimination based on the grounds of their legal status. In most U.S. state prisons, any trip to the infirmary comes with a 5-dollar copay, which can be several days’ wages when you only make 50 cents an hour, and most of your earned money goes to paying restitution to the “victims fund” (Sawyer 2017). In most cases the healthcare in U.S. prisons is mediocre at best. It is my experience that the healthcare staff of prison facilities hate their jobs the most; they routinely show a lack of care or compassion. In Sweden on the other hand, inmates receive the same care that non-incarcerated Swedish citizens do, for free. The right to medical services in Swedish prisons is regulated by law (Kriminalvarden).
Looking at just these few points of difference, we can clearly see that the U.S. does not adhere to the Mandela Rules nearly as much as Sweden does. Prison in the United States is really only about punishment, and once the punishment period ends, it just becomes about revenge. Sweden actually cares to rehabilitate inmates so as to prevent any future crime. The U.S. is really only interested in making money, which they make when people are locked up. The more people that are in the system the more money the government and private prison operators can rake in. Sweden, thus far has done a remarkable job at lowering recidivism rates and increasing rehabilitation. The Mandela Rules seek to promote justice and equality within prison walls, and having done a direct comparison between Sweden and the U.S., it is clear that Sweden is most in tune with the ideals set forth.