Those involved with criminal justice reform in the United States understandably gaze across the Atlantic with envy.
With an approach more often focused on rehabilitation than punishment, the Nordic countries beat most of the rest of the world on almost all metrics, ranging from incarceration rates to recidivism. Earlier this year, California governor Gavin Newsom drew inspiration from “the Norwegian model” in his plans for transforming San Quentin – the state’s oldest prison and home to its death row – into a centre of rehabilitation.
But it’s easy to put the Nordic countries up on a pedestal – and to lump them all together. You might be surprised to learn that in Swedish prisons, for example, university-level education was eliminated in 2019.
Approximately 30 people per year were enrolled in higher education prior to that decision. Since then, there have been no academic opportunities available to incarcerated people who already have a high school diploma.
That’s different from Sweden’s Nordic neighbours. The 2014 Norwegian Education Act guarantees prisoners access to education. People incarcerated at some Finnish prisons can enrol in online classes in high-demand fields such as artificial intelligence, and in Denmark, incarcerated people at some prisons can earn college credit alongside outside students who visit the prison.
As of 2022, there were approximately 6,150 people incarcerated in Swedish prisons, according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention.
Educating those who have had the fewest opportunities
The shift away from higher education in prison was a pragmatic decision, rather than a political one.
Lena Broo, an adult education expert at the Swedish prison service, told Open Campus that about half of the prison population has less than a grade-school education and officials decided to concentrate their resources on giving those who have had the fewest opportunities the best chance of success once they got out. That means incarcerated people in Sweden can earn up to a high-school diploma while inside.
“To have any kind of chance in today’s job market, the minimum requirement is basically a high school education,” Broo wrote in an email. “That’s what Kriminalvården [The Swedish Prison and Probation Service] is focusing on.”
The prison service has a system-wide network of “learning centres”. The curriculum is the same as that offered through the municipal adult education system, known as Komvux.
The instructional model is hybrid; incarcerated students take computer-based classes offered across the system, but each of the approximately 45 prisons in the country has at least one teacher who provides in-person tutoring. Offering the classes through the agency’s secure network allows students to transfer between facilities without interrupting their education.
Svartsjö, a minimum-security men’s prison outside of Stockholm, is very different from the US prisons portrayed on TV – there is no body scanner, the perimeter is a single chain link fence and the modular housing units are the same classic red associated with Swedish summer houses. During the day, the incarcerated men can leave the premises to work in the nearby wood workshop or to run the prison’s farm.
Svartsjö history teacher Henrik Busk teaches incarcerated students all over the country through the learning centre network. He said that prisoners need to be productively engaged at least six hours a day, whether that be in education, work, or treatment.
He said that one of the biggest challenges the system is dealing with right now is the increasing criminality of young people, many of whom are from immigrant families.
“Most feel that Swedish society isn’t open to them,” Busk said of the growing number of young people in Swedish prisons.
The Swedish government has in recent years adopted more tough-on-crime policies, such as lowering the age for a life sentence and gang enhancements, in response to an increase in shootings and gang violence.
These policies have led to a steady growth in the prison population, following a low in the mid-2010s when the country even started to close prisons. The resulting overcrowding has made it difficult to meet the needs of everyone who should be enrolled in education.
Prisoners who enter the system before they are 21 are prioritised for in-person instruction, Broo said.
Nine university degrees
Svartsjö is very different from the maximum security prisons like Kumla where Ricard Nilsson served almost 20 years of a life sentence.
Nilsson was released in 2019 – so he benefited from access to higher education offerings before they were eliminated. While incarcerated, Nilsson earned nine degrees and certificates, including a master’s of law. As a result of his education, he was admitted to the Swedish Union of Journalists while he was still incarcerated.
Nilsson was able to enrol in a sociology programme at Örebro University shortly after he was incarcerated in 2000. Both outside students and professors visited the prison for some of the lectures. By 2005, online classes were starting to become more common, Nilsson told Open Campus.
He was allowed to access his online classes and use university email while staff at the learning centre looked over his shoulder. He said that when he took his last courses in the late 2010s he was only given computer access 10 minutes at a time to respond to emails, download course materials and upload assignments. Then he completed his assignments on a secure, offline computer.
Up until around 2019, incarcerated individuals like Nilsson were allowed to enrol in regular university classes if they were accepted to the degree programme. Some faculty were willing to make exceptions for requirements like attending lectures.
But over the years, higher education institutions were less able to accommodate individual incarcerated students, Broo said. As universities shifted more and more of their instruction online, it became nearly impossible for students to enrol without more direct internet access.
Because of security concerns, a staff member had to sit with the student and watch the screen the entire time that a student was online. In 2018, the prison service suspended all supervised online learning. “We don’t have the staff for that today,” Broo said, in light of the increasing prison population.
Now, the only higher education that he’s aware is happening in Swedish prisons is if a professor is willing to do an independent study via snail mail, Nilsson said.
It’s unclear why Swedish universities aren’t offering formal prison education programmes despite the fact that some of them, such as Uppsala University, have a long history of teaching incarcerated students that dates back at least until the 1970s.
Officials at the prison service have indicated they aren’t opposed to higher education opportunities if the logistics can be worked out.
Nilsson is critical of Sweden’s shift. His experience of education inside served as a role model for others. “They are forgetting about the normative aspects of people being inspired by others who do positive things,” he said.
Charlotte West is a US-based national reporter who covers prisons and higher education for Open Campus. She lived in Sweden from 2002 to 2009 and was a frequent contributor to The Local. She earned her master’s in politics from Stockholm University.
This story is published in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom in the US focused on higher education. Subscribe to College Inside, an Open Campus newsletter on the future of postsecondary education in prison.