A new report from the Swedish Prison and Probation Service claims that 46 percent of Sweden’s inmates are mentally ill, that 70 percent have severe drug problems and that these problems mostly have their origins in early life. As elsewhere, Sweden’s prison population is made up of the most disenfranchised, poorest and most vulnerable elements of society. Sweden’s leading criminologist, Jerzy Sarnecki, notes this and argues that house arrest with an ankle monitor should be used in the case of minor crimes. While anyone who has any knowledge of the scholarship on the effects of imprisonment would agree that this would be an improvement, it would hopefully down the road be a step toward the complete abolition of the prison system. Prison sentences are not only arbitrarily and corruptly passed — they simply do not work.
Contrary to popular belief, being imprisoned in Sweden is no picnic. Although there is a big difference between Sweden and the US, Sweden’s prisoners are also needlessly treated in inhumane ways. Former inmate Torgny Jönsson was one of many inmates placed in the so called “bunker,” a high security facility where inmates are denied any kind of education, rehabilitation, treatment, occupation or visits from family members. He has now started the campaign Reclaim Justice, suing the Prison and Probation Service, on the charge that bunker placement is “legally uncertain like in the USA,” arbitrary and lacks procedural transparency.
The prison system is built on a fundamental paradox of principles. On the one hand, its defenders make pragmatic, consequentialist arguments like “we need to send a clear message to criminals.” But all evidence points to the fact that harsher sentences, longer bids and worse conditions increase recidivism rather than decrease it. It should be obvious, being imprisoned doesn’t make you a better person. It makes you more hostile to the society that put you there and it makes the rest of society more hostile to you — making it more difficult to live a “normal life” once you’ve been released. When faced with these simple arguments, the “tough on crime” crowd sometimes show their true colors — their objective was never to rehabilitate or deter, but to exact vengeance.
The monstrosity of the modern prison system is made possible by the fact that its victims are at the very bottom of the societal ladder. It is based on a logic of vengeance rather than one of scientifically tried methods of actually improving society. It is a cynical exploitation of the blind hatred and fear of “criminals” that many people hold, and lies at the heart of the myth of why we need a state at all. Without the state’s police and prisons, the myth goes, “they” will have free reign. “They” will be able to murder and steal without a care in the world. So the state puts them in prisons and bunkers, in the end making society less safe and more violent for all of us.
So what should be done instead? For one thing poverty and exploitation should be addressed. 32 percent of Sweden’s inmates are citizens of other countries. The total amount of immigrants in Sweden’s prisons is unknown, but higher. Sweden’s labor immigration system is seemingly tailor made to assert the dominance of employer over worker – it is a system in which immigrants’ right to be in Sweden is dependent on having employment, making them extremely dependent on employers and vulnerable for exploitation. Free immigration would end this exploitation, but this is of course just one of countless examples of how the state keeps poor people down. Let’s end this vicious circle of poverty and violence by bringing down the state and its capitalist cronies.