At the Guardian , Charlotte Higgins has done an investigation into the U. Winter is the most hygge time of year. It is candles, nubby woolens, shearling slippers, woven textiles, pastries, blond wood, sheepskin rugs, lattes with milk-foam hearts, and a warm fireplace. Hygge can be used as a noun, adjective, verb, or compound noun, like hyggebukser , otherwise known as that shlubby pair of pants you would never wear in public but secretly treasure. Hygge can be found in a bakery and in the dry heat of a sauna in winter, surrounded by your naked neighbors. After a hike in the snow, the friends sat around the fireplace wearing sweaters and woolen socks, listening to the crackle of the fire, and enjoying mulled wine.
Like many of the best things from Scandinavia, hygge might seem, to some Americans, to come with a whiff of smugness. The term is often mentioned in the same paragraph that reminds us that Danes or, depending on the year, Norwegians and Swedes are the happiest people in the world. Perhaps Scandinavians are better able to appreciate the small, hygge things in life because they already have all the big ones nailed down: free university education, social security, universal health care, efficient infrastructure, paid family leave, and at least a month of vacation a year.
This vision of restrained pleasure harmonizes with a related Swedish concept, lagom , which refers to a kind of moderation. It encourages modesty and teamwork and discourages extremes. It is related to fairness, the need for consensus, and equality.
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Lagom is how a Swede might respond when someone asks how much milk you want in your tea or if things are going well. The Americans look shocked and afraid.
The father glances at his wife. The Americans gather into a family huddle. Their whispers grow hot. The son grabs the top of his head—unable to believe this conversation is even taking place. Serving time for theft, drug trafficking, assault, or murder, all the men here are on the verge of release. Cellblocks look like dorms at a state university.
Though worse for wear, rooms feature flat-screen TVs, sound systems, and mini-refrigerators for the prisoners who can afford to rent them for prison-labor wages of 4. With electronic monitoring, prisoners are allowed to spend time with their families in Helsinki. Men here enjoy a screened barbecue pit, a gym, and a dining hall where prisoners and staff eat together. Prisoners throughout Scandinavia wear their own clothes. Officers wear navy slacks, powder-blue shirts, nametags and shoulder bars; but they carry no batons, handcuffs, Tasers or pepper-spray. The assistant warden who has led Linda and me around, Timo, looks like a wizened roadie: graying beard, black vest and jeans, red shirt, biker boots, and a taste for slim cigars.
Where are the impenetrable barriers? The punishing conditions that satisfy an American sense of justice? First, an important caveat: Nordic prisons are not all open facilities. To an American eye, these prisons look like prisons: meter walls, cameras, steel doors. Prisoner art ornamented walls painted in mild greens and browns and blues. But the most profound difference is that correctional officers fill both rehabilitative and security roles. This is all possible because, throughout Scandinavia, criminal justice policy rarely enters political debate.
Decisions about best practices are left to professionals in the field, who are often published criminologists and consult closely with academics.
And all of this takes place in nations with established histories of consensual politics, relatively small and homogenous populations, and the best social service networks in the world, including the best public education. Standing outside a Nordic closed prison, the American son would have felt perfectly at ease. There is also the matter of scale. The prison population of Sweden 6, is less than half the population of Rikers Island at its height 14, Several prisons in the U. This is not simply the difference between large and much smaller countries.
But the issue here is the instinctive, visceral fear of prisons and prisoners. It is about basic assumptions regarding what states must do to people who violate the law, not only in order to secure the safety, but to satisfy the sense of justice, of law-abiding citizens. Even if the U.
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And this is at a time when even tough-on-crime politicians acknowledge that states are going broke supporting prisons with no positive return to taxpayers—including no net boost to public safety. So this is both a philosophical quandary and a practical question: How is it that Nordic prisons that seem so cushy yield recidivism rates one-half to one-third of those in the U.
Under the guise of the wars on drugs, crime, and terror, the urban poor and disenfranchised, especially young black men, have been rounded up in mass numbers, largely for non-violent drug crimes, of which middle-class whites have been consistently shown to be equal perpetrators.
Decades of research show that incarceration and crime rates in the U. Between and , for example, New York shrank its prison population by 20 percent while crime rates dropped by 29 percent; from to , Indiana increased its prison population by 45 percent and reduced its crime rate by. In the s, Finland made the decision to lower its incarceration rates in line with Scandinavian norms; it shrank that rate by 75 percent across periods of both rising and stable crime. Prison size is not determined by crime rates but by what states decide to treat as crimes, how much punishment the public demands, and, in the U.
And all of these factors are determined by whom voters imagine this punishment landing upon. This peculiarly American institutionalization has created a nation where few middle-class white Americans can name anyone they know personally who has been sentenced to prison, and even fewer black Americans of any class cannot. In , Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie a major influence on Scandinavian penal policy had already unpacked this phenomenon. In Crime Control as Industry , Christie concluded that the more unlike oneself the imagined perpetrator of crime, the harsher the conditions one will agree to impose upon convicted criminals, and the greater the range of acts one will agree should be designated as crimes.
More homogeneous nations institutionalize mercy, which is to say they attend more closely to the circumstances surrounding individual criminal acts. Author Kenneth E. Hartman has lived inside California prisons for over three decades. In an essay in the forthcoming book, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America , he speaks to why that system sees 75 percent of all repeat parolees back within three years:. Most prisoners are uneducated, riddled with unresolved traumas and ill-treated mental health problems, drug and alcohol addictions, and self-esteem issues far too often bordering on the pathological.
The vast majority has never received competent health care, mental health care, drug treatment, education or even an opportunity to look at themselves as humans. Had any of these far less draconian interventions been tried… no doubt many of my peers would be leading productive lives. In the end, the vast majority of us become exactly who we are told we are: violent, irrational, and incapable of conducting ourselves like conscious adults. It is a tragic opera with an obvious outcome.
Nothing else works is not a statement of fact; it is the declaration of an ideology. This ideology holds that punishment, for the sake of the infliction of pain, is the logical response to all misbehavior. It is also a convenient cover story behind which powerful special interest groups hide. Rather than remediating the effects of these issues, prisons tend to institutionalize them. Those of us in the virtually prison-immune demographics also fail to credit convicted people with the simple capacity to see and understand where they are.
No imprisoned American has to be told she has been left to the whims of under-screened and under-trained staff, most of whom are also from impoverished circumstances.
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They see staff rewarded with promotion for harsh treatment of prisoners and on the way to solid pensions. Parole decisions are made by political appointees who watch the backs of their patrons. The system itself breeds cynical resentment.
Could understanding other cultures’ concepts of joy and well-being help us reshape our own?
Witnessing the humiliation, racism, and physical assault perpetrated against prisoners—by staff, or tolerated between prisoners—can overfill the psychological space where reflection and self-searching might occur. Now imagine yourself in a prison that commands a view from a tourist brochure. Your cell phone lies on a shelf, next to a TV and CD player, inside a prison that lets you go to paid work or study.
There is no perimeter wall. Another will help you look for work, or for the next stage of education.
Imagine yourself a prisoner who knows he is in prison for what he did, not because of his color or class, or because, lacking the resources for a proper defense, he plea-bargained under threat of near-geological years of incarceration. But also imagine living on this lovely island knowing, every minute of every day, that this is not your home, these people are not your family, your friends, your children, and you are always one misstep from a cell in a closed prison.
You have strict curfews.