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Prisons chief aims to make 'hard time' a rehearsal for home

Posted November 25
Updated November 26

FILE - This June 15, 2010 file photo shows the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise, Idaho. A handful of U.S. prison leaders like Idaho Department of Correction Director Kevin Kempf are trying to incorporate European principals, where correctional officers strive to make the prison experience as close to normal life as possible, into prisons back home. They hope the changes will lead to lower recidivism rates, happier staffers and inmates who are better prepared to be good neighbors once they are released. (AP Photo/Charlie Litchfield, File)

— When he got his first post as a warden 20 years ago, Kevin Kempf looked around the prison yard and decided everything green had to go.

Trees, shrubs, even the rosebushes at the state prison in the mountain town of Orofino were ripped out, leaving nothing but an empty yard.

"It's just stupid — that was our mindset," says Kempf, who now heads Idaho's correction agency. "You don't have to remind inmates every minute of every day that they are inmates."

Today, Kempf is one of a handful of U.S. corrections leaders trying a different approach, modeled on the progressive "open" prison systems of Norway, Germany and some other European countries.

The differences between "open prisons" and America's traditional "closed" lockups couldn't be starker.

At the Idaho State Correctional Center in Orofino, for example, every part of life reinforces to occupants that they are first and foremost prisoners, from the barren walls to the tiny, impact-proof windows. Inmates often get only two choices a day: whether to have a breakfast tray brought to their cell and whether to spend an hour in the recreation yard.

Inmates at Norway's Halden prison, however, are treated much like free people. They wear their own clothes, buy their own food at a prison market and prepare it in a fully stocked kitchen. They are expected to go to school or work every day — with both options available on prison grounds — and they might spend their free time recording music in the prison studio, strolling across the tree-covered property, or watching TV on a flat-screen in their dorm-like cell.

Kempf was sold on Norway's approach after seeing it firsthand earlier this year. He and other Idaho officials spent a week examining European prisons, courtesy of the Prison Law Office, an inmate civil rights law firm in Berkeley, California.

"We came back totally converted," Kempf said. "It made a lot of sense for increasing public safety and, frankly, increasing the safety of our staff."

Kempf acknowledges modeling prisons after the wealthy welfare state of Norway is a tough sell in Idaho, one of America's reddest states. At least one lawmaker, however, is already convinced.

"What kind of person do we want leaving our prison?" asked Rep. Rick Youngblood, a Nampa Republican who accompanied Kempf on the trip. "It's this concept of working with people and trying to bring some normalcy into the system, where when they leave, that's what they'll hope to experience when they get out."

Prison Law Office executive director Don Specter began sending correction officials to see Europe's prisons in 2011 after he decided inmate civil rights lawsuits weren't doing enough to change the culture of punishment inside most U.S. prisons.

So far, officials from states including North Dakota, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Georgia, Colorado and Pennsylvania have made the trip, resulting in varying impacts back home.

"The systems that have benefited the most besides Idaho are Pennsylvania and North Dakota," Specter said. "In both cases, the directors, like Kevin (Kempf), came back with a genuine belief that prison can be more humane than it currently is while still maintaining security and appropriately housing prisoners."

In Norway, the imprisonment itself is the punishment, Specter said, and prisons are treated as training grounds for the inmates' eventual release. That approach has lowered recidivism rates and improved prison workers' mental health, he said.

"The harsh conditions that affect both the prisoners and the corrections officers working there are counterproductive to the main goal, which is to create better neighbors," Specter said.

Correctional officers in open prisons are expected to be role models, and their duties include talking to inmates and helping them navigate daily life. That might mean assisting them with homework, coaching them before a job interview or just playing volleyball if the prisoner team is short a man. They make sure the inmates are not just safe and secure but are being productive, Specter said.

The same values could be applied in the U.S., Specter said. But changing the culture in an American prison isn't easy.

Norway's prisons have much bigger budgets than most U.S. correctional centers, and Norway lacks the gang problem common in American prisons.

Most American correctional officers have been trained to remain emotionally distant from inmates, a skill thought to make the staffers less susceptible to manipulation. But the dreary atmosphere and high-stress nature of the job lead to high levels of burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder, Kempf said.

He's directing staffers to begin taking a more personal, yet still professional, interest in prisoners, in hopes that it helps attitudes and outcomes for everyone. He's also examining changes in the way inmates are disciplined for breaking some prison rules, to ensure the response is proportional to the offense.

Kempf is focusing on changes he can make administratively without increasing the budget. Idaho's prisons won't ever look like Norway's, but many of the principles can be incorporated, he said.

"We're still dealing, at the end of the day, with inmates that are broken," Kempf said. "We need to do what we can to make people better, not make them worse."

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