Karianne Jackson was working for the North Dakota prison system in 2015 when a trip to Norway changed her life. There, she saw a prison with no bars and no uniformed guards. Instead, prisoners lived in small cottages with common areas, private bedrooms, even kitchens with real cups, real dishes, and real knives. And she started thinking: What if I could make the US prison system a bit more like that? ––– Further reading: Jessica Benko in the New York Times on the "radical humaneness" of Norway's Halden Prison Dashka Slater in Mother Jones on Karianne Jackson's "Norway experiment" in North Dakota Vox’s German Lopez explains mass incarceration in the United States More of Vox’s effective altruism coverage ––– Discover more podcasts from Vox here. 
United States


00:00:00in Jackson work for the North Dakota department of corrections and rehabilitation for nine years our last two years there were very different from her for seven things started to change in twenty fifteen when she went on a trip is part of a bigger program one that took US
00:00:18prison officials on tours of prison systems overseas in Germany and Norway high expectations for this trip were pretty low I was really Eric can't I thought we were already doing everything right it's just our staff wasn't doing it well and I we are doing what the evidence says
00:00:41like what was I really going to see other than like what I call the I kia prison right like it's gonna be look nice %HESITATION is gonna like college campuses can be pretty that's really all I thought I was going to see I didn't expect I don't think
00:00:56any of my colleagues expected to be so moved and really so humiliated by what we saw vox media podcast network this is future perfect podcast re look at big problems through the lens of effective altruism I'm Dylan Matthews one of the big ideas and effective altruism is which
00:01:22we're gonna really big problems really big problems that we know we can make a big dent in we should do that even if making a big dent in them requires doing things that are kind of counter intuitive or emotionally uncomfortable today you were planned that idea to the
00:01:39American prison system the problem is definitely big more than two million Americans are locked up at any given time really going to prison is like getting a chronic disease it sticks with you even after you've left the rehabilitation part of department of corrections and rehabilitation it's just not
00:02:00happening for every four people who get out of state prison three of them will be back in prison again within five years that is seventy five percent that's where the possibility for big change comes in some people people like Kerry and think we could actually rehabilitate people and
00:02:19keep them from coming back but you do it we'd have to make prisons pleasant again this might seem counter intuitive emotionally we want to punish people who do bad things and it feels logical to make prison as unpleasant as possible like the worst prison is more scared people
00:02:41will be to commit crimes but that's not what carrion Jackson saw Norway once you get through the one gate right is a kind of a big cement wall just like you're a college campus it feels like a college campus and not just because of the physical environment that
00:02:58looks like dorms in classes in libraries it feels like a college campus because it feels like people are there to learn something and the staff for there to teach them something and so I think that's what took me most was that they had clearly built this place to
00:03:16do exactly what it is they say they're going to do which is rehabilitate people what is a cell look like in this place so they don't actually have like the rows and rows and rows and tears of cells warehousing people like were more prone to do here in
00:03:31the states they have these small cottages really and so one cottage might have ten or twelve rooms and then have a common area to cook to watch TV to read a book there no bars just windows everyone the I mean is the big one for present every room
00:03:51has a door that doesn't have some like one sided windows I can you know pecan on you they really value privacy and %HESITATION in the kitchen like the things that if you wanna know what shocks the United States correctional people going into a kitchen sink real lives real
00:04:08dishes cops we commonly will feed guys out of a flimsy kind of rubbery plastics they can't even use the trays a weapon and here they've got like a butcher knife it looks very much like a home that you could be comfortable in and where the guards scared by
00:04:26that's by these inmates with butter knives I'm now what was interesting is that the correctional officers didn't wear uniforms they weren't normal clothes Haynes so there wasn't like this I'm the cop in your the robber kind of costume party happening like it was I'm a person and I
00:04:45work here and your person you live here and it keeps things really level and it removes all those obstacles that occur because the people we work with typically do you have some level of resistance towards someone who's seen as a thorny I'm just through their experience and learning
00:05:01people can just be people interacting with others what are you feeling as you're walking through all this how pissed off like I'm losing my mind %HESITATION I had been so staunchly affiliated with you do these eight evidence based practices implement these of high fidelity and your result is
00:05:22reduced recidivism period and %HESITATION what we found with every new kind of venture was very kind of shallow transmission of the message kind of like I guess the way I quit it is if I want to get in shape I start putting ellipticals and a McDonald's right this
00:05:42second hurdle right could her and go live to go other ordering your lunch but it probably better just to not have them at a McDonald's right and I think that's where we got stuck his we kept adding things to something that was broken instead of looking at what
00:05:55was broken back in the nineteen eighties Norway's prisons are much less like college campuses and in the old Norwegian system forty percent of people came back after being released now it's twenty percent literally half of what it used to be the college campus prison is doing a way
00:06:18better job of rehabilitating criminals I ask your hand if it felt kind of sad to see how different these prisons were from the one she was running back home yeah absolutely I mean I I jokingly but but very honestly say it was the best trip of my life
00:06:36that I kind of wish I never would have taken when a when I came back I was harder to work with one of my colleagues were very closely with said to me at one point you're just so much less tolerant of mediocrity now when Karen got back home
00:06:56she organized a conference on prisons at the capitol she brought some photos from Norway she brought our d'oeuvres but more importantly she brought to inmates I went got him some close to a normal clothes %HESITATION we don't have security drive into the capital to put a hand because
00:07:14they just hopped in my truck and %HESITATION we went to the capitol and we let them share their experience about humanity means to them while they're incarcerated what a difference that relationship does that to their ability to change or not change do you remember a specific point that
00:07:33the one of the inmates made about about what humanity meant to them that was particularly powerful yeah you know there's always one guy he's actually release no he talked about how when someone bothered to get to know him as ed he thought more about who he wanted it
00:07:53to be great it's very kind of like Aristotle right builders learn to build by building purposely delayed heart by playing heart I learned to be a person being a person by learn self control living self controlled if I feel like you're putting me in a cage and treating
00:08:10me like an animal I wish my response was to show you that you were wrong but typically my responses to show you your right and just how right you are I'm not guess I I June July June if you could seamlessly Trini by the end you might turn
00:08:30a person it's when this is over is another inmate the carrion worked with and she interviewed him for short video that she made in the video he's young he's in his twenties he's wearing a white T. shirt any serving a sentence for kidnapping and robbery so before carrion
00:08:47started making changes she says he was aggressive threatening staff and getting into fights for I felt like nobody deal for so why should I even if I do want to change I an article by the by their co to spend time in solitary confinement slide you in your
00:09:06you live down twenty two twenty three hours a day is light the world for god bless you and only you right you get is asking the CEO for a newspaper or something like that they might gives you the mine are they might get added to the body which
00:09:23makes it ten times worse you are and stuff back there at times I wouldn't have nothing in my cell for months and months and months on end because we are stressing this is Nick he's in his thirties and has been in and out of prison for burglary assault
00:09:39drug charges Pfaff he's also had a lot of run ins with prison staff we spent a lot of time in solitary always this feeling like %HESITATION us feeling like you know everybody was against me that they didn't want to help me at all and you're just throwing me
00:09:56into a cell with nothing in these same pretty much everything you need I don't care how you Sir neck how do you want to be treated well %HESITATION in prison I want to be treated like a human respectfully for staff to see me %HESITATION I am other than
00:10:19just a prisoner after Norway trip Kerry and thought okay what we're doing now isn't working so let's pick some principles from the Norwegian correctional system and try them out in North Dakota I think one of the biggest ones that help with that I thought would really change the
00:10:38Titan staff seems really support of that was to take this rule book we have just like many other facilities it's like three hundred different codes of all these different rules you can break right we've got different tiers I mean we make it like you know you can partner
00:10:53went on Tuesday and that's like a level B. or level two and you get ten days in the hall as there's all these different %HESITATION really like to just kind of infractions that you can get one of the things we thought we were in Norway was to make
00:11:09our rule book more like the ten commandments in size if you make the rules a simple it's really easy to enforce and I think you'd be happier with the result because people are always getting caught doing wrong and so make it really obvious things like well hitting someone
00:11:27will get you in trouble stealing something will get you in trouble escaping will get you into trouble you know like the really obvious things that anyone would enforce whether they were training corrections or not versus your shirt was untucked your ID tag wasn't on your left shoulder I
00:11:42mean you loan debt magazine to use the cell mate next door get rid of that it makes the staff focused on the wrong thing which is not rehabilitation it's funny that you say that you sometimes here people in a pleasing contacts on the outside talk about through a
00:11:59broken windows approach if you have to prosecute the little thing to that then there's a sense of order in it doesn't sound like that's your experience if we stand in the present yeah I think we saw that most in solitary confinement so it was very easy to get
00:12:14into solitary confinement but boy is it hard to get out of there because you might go in for a fight but two weeks into your stay when you're annoyed and pissed off you curse the guards they're gonna stay for another week well now you're really pissed off they
00:12:30stay for another week and you decide to you know write some stuff on your walls in your cell nursing for two more weeks and on and on it because because now what they're waiting for is your perfection earn your way out of solitary confinement when you're in an
00:12:43environment that would do anything but promote following the rules and being rational and logical I mean even physiologically as we found that you know that Rogan would approach mentioning it works if what you're trying to do is catch people doing something wrong all the time that it works
00:12:59perfectly for for long term behavior change not not what we want so can you describe the prison that you referred to as the farm which seems like it was a sight of a lot of the changes that you wanted to to try out yeah the farm is the
00:13:13Missouri River correctional center here in Bismarck is our minimum security prison right on the kind of the banks the Missouri River it's much more open you drive down this road that's just filled with huge towering cottonwood trees and there's turkeys are crossing the street in deer and like
00:13:31they have a big card in and in the summertime it's very cool hand Luke Evans walked rather sure it off getting a suntan like it doesn't feel like prison and then they started letting education take people out on field trips you know looking at education more broadly than
00:13:47you know arithmetic than writing and actually take people out taken to the capital take them to Walmart to do some shopping because that's what you do yet you don't say the same place all day long you get up in the morning you leave and you come home at
00:14:01the end of the day they had a work release program already expanded the work release program yeah we had that huge oil them so there's tons of these old man can't housing modular units available we bought one of those that guys when work release could come home at
00:14:19the end of the day watch TV in their own room lock your door and have a little bit more independent not so much that we're rewarding that so they're practicing you know it's a bad habit you Asian people that are in prison have been practicing certain behaviors for
00:14:38a long time that's what they're good at them and their behaviors like lying stealing %HESITATION manipulating all sorts of things you don't want that people get what they practice and stuff I have them practice paying bills being responsible they get good at that too even if that's not
00:14:55like kind of their intrinsic motivation to do so you can hear the way they carry and interacted with inmates in the interview she did with hopes and neck like this one where she also hopes to describe himself I would describe myself as a phone one since the human
00:15:19and the small silly jokes but jokes can be important when you're sitting in the cell and on the road you or does it for use in or somebody come of the speech you like a person job %HESITATION to this call to you know Sam makes you feel better
00:15:39%HESITATION makes you feel like you're not just handling the case being able at top officers whatever happened thank god issues where there are frustrated or angry and stuff like that I've never been a really do that before before the changes naked assaulted prison staff problem one should allow
00:15:59me one in the office and make coffee in the coffee pot you see and make great coffee the lord is everybody so far and you know the deputy wardens they've all come down and had some coffee I had had the best relationship with some of the staff over
00:16:16the years now it's a lie exponentially bad with the tricky for the staff at all to transition to treating inmates like people that they were part of a community with as opposed to a sort of adversarial relationship where we found success was not by trying to get people
00:16:38on board that's me you hear a lot you know we really want to get the staff on board we really want to motivate the staff you know what their paycheck motivates the staff here's what you should do give them a directive and ask them to do it make
00:16:50a measurable their choices to do it or not do it if they do it reinforce them if they don't do it then find someone who will do it so given everything you tried do you feel like you achieved what you set out to achieve %HESITATION no I don't
00:17:05think I'd shoot what what we could achieve I think it really comes down to the will and and I think what game impedes our will to make the change is fear and is not always right the fear of what will people say if I let this guy going
00:17:22to pass his daughter's graduation and he beat someone up or the fear of what with the public say if I treat this person who murdered someone's loved one kindly and and value him as a as a person the fear of what if we're wrong about one of these
00:17:42guys that we've been containing in solitary confinement and he kills one of my staff members how I answer for that fear is that such a derailleur of the goal can so we operate not under our goal is to rehabilitate we end up operating under our goal as okay
00:18:04don't get anyone killed don't get anyone to badly hurt tell me too many mistakes don't look stupid right and then and then what can you achieve in that circle to hear that skeptics out for a second is there a point at which the rehabilitation focus starts to detract
00:18:20from things like deterrence or for fear retribution for victims that's something I hear all the time as well that if prisons were that nice everyone of want to go and you know people already say that now about our prisons you know think about Maricopa county right deal tent
00:18:41city sheriff Joe has tent city everyone is in the heat of Arizona in a tent the U. S. justice department plans to sue Arizona sheriff Joe our pile over alleged civil rights violations they packed him you know three or four high in Arizona heat outside in a hundred
00:18:59and thirty degree heat during the summer and their shoes melting pot their shoes melting was so hot pretty extraordinary they had the pink clothing for the inmates pink underwear as a shameful humiliating thing for them then they brag about how cost more to feed the canine unit the
00:19:14deceit in may in their jail and even that didn't keep when people say to me it's a life in here is better life on the outside what would motivate them to stay out that's not a prison problem that said community problem if you're saying that every human being's
00:19:34life at liberty has less opportunity less freedom and less privileged the living inside of a maximum security prison well then no wonder why this person commits crimes staff I think service for torn in their role like they always say to me what with the victims think what about
00:19:59the victims what about the victims and you know my response is always been like can't do anything about those victims those of already occurred but I can interact this person in a way that will prevent more victims and unfortunately doesn't feel as good to the old victim I
00:20:16started kind this ongoing joke that I knew that I had done my job for the day if someone felt compelled in a meeting or otherwise to remind me well Kerry and you know the still is present still prison let's not forget this is still present can I just
00:20:32stop people may say that's that's it right there isn't for unwilling to forget prison the problem Dr solutions so we would put down that broken Cup can pick up the new one we probably get close to what we want but it's still present we still holding on to
00:20:50something it's broken and free to put it down at any given time about two point three million people are locked up in the United States millions more pass in and out of jails and prisons every year that's a pretty big broking cop moving all of those people into
00:21:09prisons like the ones in Norway would be great but it would also be tricky there are emotional barriers and their financial challenges but if we could actually focus on rehabilitating people on curing the chronic disease that is incarceration that's one really big step it seems the only step
00:21:31that we should take from an effective altruism perspective we really want to keep people from going to prison in the first place but if a person can get a little smaller and a little more humane then we'd really be getting somewhere are wonderfully talented producers bird can Christian
00:21:58our editors Amy tryst owska we owe many thanks to join Weinberger our engineer is juror at Floyd we have music by Christopher ski Paddington bear blue dot sessions and our very own no one has future perfect is made possible through a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation read more
00:22:17of our reporting on effective altruism check out fox dot com slash future perfect

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