Michael Moore's Portrayal of Norway Prison vs. My 15-to-Life Sentence in the U.S.
Michael Moore does a lot of traveling in his new documentary, Where to Invade Next. The film is eye-opening as Moore explores what it could be like to implement new ideas and policies in the U.S. Moore travels to several countries in Europe, North Africa and Scandinavia to make sure we slowly but surely get this point.
For example, Moore visits France where students in public schools eat gourmet government lunches, as opposed to inferior meals served in American schools. He visits an Italian motorcycle factory in Italy and finds that their workers enjoy eight weeks of vacation every year, which their employer is more than happy to give them because they actually are concerned about their employee's health instead of just the owners making money. There is no clash between the profit of the company and the well-being of the workers. Then he travels to Slovenia where they visit a school and it is shown that higher education is free for all, and international students are allowed to enroll.
This was all good stuff, but for me what caught my interest was Michael Moore's coverage of the criminal justice system and the way punishment is dished out in Portugal and Norway. I guess the reason for this is my experience as a first time non-violent drug offender who was whacked with a 15 to Life sentence for passing an envelope with four ounces of cocaine to undercover cops. I wound up serving 12 years of that sentence before New York's Governor George Pataki granted me executive clemency.
Moore travels to Portugal where they have decriminalized drugs in response to what was described by my colleague Sharda Sekaran in a recent opinion piece she wrote stating, "Nearly fifteen years ago, in response to a growing opiate misuse public health crisis, the government of Portugal shifted their entire approach to drug use away from arrest and punishment and towards public health."
But what moved me the most was when Moore travels to Norway and visits what they describe as maximum security prisons, places that seem to be run like hotels where prisoners and prison guards act in harmony with one another, as opposed to American prisons where a cat and dog mentality exists and prisoners are treated like dirt. For me, seeing this for the first time made me shake my head in disbelief, especially when the documentary showed that prisoners had rooms that contained their own showers. With further research I found out that Norway's prison system is based on the concept of restorative justice, which repairs the harm caused by crime instead of punishing individuals. Prisoners are treated like human beings and live in a humane environment. Their prisons have no bars on their windows and their kitchens are fully equipped with what would be considered to be contraband objects in American prisons.
Prisoners in Norway live in environments that do not create systematic dependency. In sum, Norway focuses on rehabilitating prisoners instead of just warehousing them, enabling them to becoming better prepared to reenter society when released. This can be seen where Norway's 20% recidivism rate is one of the lowest in the world, as compared to the United States where 76.6 % of prisoners are re-arrested.
By adapting a less punitive approach, Norway's prisons prepare prisoners to return to the real world, arming them with the skills needed to effectively reenter society. Even sentences for serious crimes are limited to a maximum sentence of 21 years. However, after serving the sentence if the prisoner is found not to be rehabilitated they can be served with indefinite five year terms.
Bottom line is that Michael Moore's documentary has the potential to open people's eyes to changes that need to be made in America. It should be seen by every American that is concerned with changing our system of living for the betterment of humankind.
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance blog.