Hyatt is an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and Justice Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.
On May 5, 2022, the then-superintendent of the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Chester announced that he’d done the unthinkable.
Not only had Kenneth Eason, a corrections veteran of 32 years, sat down to eat a meal with inmates, but he also authorized the purchase of equipment for a kitchen to be shared by some of the incarcerated men.
The prison leader recounted his actions with astonishment during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for “Little Scandinavia,” a new unit of SCI Chester that incorporates reforms imported from corrections systems in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. In addition to a communal kitchen, Little Scandinavia features a landscaped green space and 64 well-lighted individual cells outfitted with mini-fridges and modern furniture. Alongside those amenities, officials put new policies in place intended to turn the unit into a more hospitable, home-like environment for the inmates housed there.
The changes were spearheaded by Jordan Hyatt, associate professor of criminology and justice studies and director of Drexel’s Center for Public Policy, and Synøve Andersen, a researcher at the University of Oslo and a fellow in the Center for Public Policy. Their efforts are part of the Scandinavian Prison Project (SPP), which aims to document and evaluate SCI Chester’s efforts to improve conditions for both inmates and correctional staff and, in the long term, lower recidivism rates.
Brightly lit, welcoming spaces in Little Scandinavia set a tone that promotes constructive engagement between incarcerated men and corrections officers.
SPP has brought together corrections officials in Pennsylvania, Norway and Sweden with academics from Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania, the University at Buffalo, the University of Minnesota and Villanova University’s Widger School of Law to measure the impact of changes that humanize correctional facilities, in hopes of making inmates’ re-entry into the community more successful.
The project represents a capstone of sorts for Hyatt and his colleagues, who have spent years building a broad body of research evaluating policies and programs that affect people in the criminal justice system.
Forging and maintaining this partnership has occupied much of Hyatt’s time since 2017, requiring him to navigate diverse organizational and national cultures, to promote accountability infused with compassion and to measure the impact of corrections practices with rigor and precision.
Building Bridges and Trust
Seeds for the SPP were planted in 2015, when Hyatt and Andersen began taking Drexel students on Intensive Courses Abroad in Norway and Sweden to study how corrections practices in those countries differ dramatically from the U.S. prison system. More recently, they added an independent component in Denmark that focuses on harm reduction, including visits to safe-injection sites.
The courses expose students to corrections facilities that look and feel nothing like the grim and violent environments portrayed on television shows like “Oz” or “Orange Is the New Black.”
Many Scandinavian prisons are brightly lit and comfortably furnished. Corrections officers are directly involved in day-to-day activities with incarcerated people and may cook, play games or participate in sports with them. In some prisons, incarcerated people and officers use first names. Inmates live in private cells, many of which have bathrooms.
Beyond introducing students to diverse correctional norms, the intensive courses helped lay critical groundwork for research Hyatt sought to pursue with colleagues to understand the Nordic approach and to assess the feasibility and impact of transporting such practices to Pennsylvania prisons.
“I’m still skeptical of the entire project, if it’s going to work in the United States or even here, but I have higher hopes for it now. I really want it to work. I’m looking forward to getting on the block and proving to the Norwegians that we can do better than them.”
—OFFICER TYLER KARASINSKI
“Because Drexel provided me with that opportunity, we were able to build stronger ties to the Norwegian and Swedish correctional systems,” Hyatt says. “This allowed us to bring folks from that side of the Atlantic into this partnership.”
In 2017, Hyatt invited Are Høidal, the governor of an acclaimed prison in Halden, Norway, to the United States to give a presentation in collaboration with John Wetzel, who was then the Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections. Høidal described how reforms that began in the 1990s had reduced violence in Norwegian prisons and may have helped achieve a recidivism rate of 20% — well below Pennsylvania’s 64.7% rate.
Norway’s reforms reflect common European standards that seek to infuse the prison environment with as much normalcy as possible: The same entities that deliver health, education and library services in the broader community also provide them in prison. Inmates and officers commonly eat meals together and work collaboratively to plan for the individuals’ return to society.
Hyatt and his colleagues have studied the Scandinavian reforms extensively, publishing their findings in recent editions of American Criminal Law Review, Federal Sentencing Reporter, European Journal of Criminology and Drug and Alcohol Review. A key difference between cultures is that while U.S. corrections leaders have tended to treat inmates with increased stridency, eliminating privileges that were previously conferred, Scandinavian officials view losing one’s liberty as punishment enough.
A series of planned and fortuitous unplanned opportunities that followed Høidal’s visit allowed Hyatt and his colleagues to advance the project. In 2019, the SPP received the blessing of Wetzel, who selected SCI Chester as the site for Little Scandinavia.
Normalcy Behind Bars
In the summer of 2019, Hyatt and Andersen led administrators from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and officers from SCI Chester on a three-week immersion in prisons and other facilities in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
Upon arriving, some officers voiced their doubts.
“I’m a massive skeptic to this entire project,” Officer Tyler Karasinski acknowledges in a video documenting the trip, describing tools in a communal kitchen as “weapon, weapon, weapon.”
The officers received intensive training in conflict resolution and physical restraint techniques before working alongside peer mentors in three Norwegian prisons. Meanwhile, corrections leaders toured other high-security facilities in Sweden and Denmark, conferring with their Scandinavian counterparts.
The officers were surprised to find goodwill between inmates and those who hold the keys. The two groups ate meals together and often discussed plans for returning to the community. At times, officers and inmates exercised together.
“I felt like I was in a completely alternate universe,” Officer Paige Devane says, describing a lunch of fish cakes she shared with inmates in Norway’s Ila Prison.
At Halden prison, officers were also intrigued to find cooking classes, a sound studio, a woodshop and a metal shop. Not only was the atmosphere relaxed, the officers discovered, but the inmates seldom harmed one another.
Hyatt and his colleagues summarized the visitors’ impressions in “’We Can Actually Do This:’ Adapting Scandinavian Correctional Culture in Pennsylvania,” which appeared in American Criminal Law Review in 2021.
The authors noted that the Scandinavian corrections model does not exist in a vacuum but reflects the substantial investment that welfare states make in all citizens’ well-being. The officers, for their part, noticed that their Norwegian counterparts receive far more training and supervise far fewer inmates than they do. Administrators spotted familiar features like metal detectors in the maximum-security facilities.
Still, both groups returned to Pennsylvania inspired to make changes. Even Karasinski, after playing video games with a Norwegian inmate in solitary confinement, gained a measure of optimism.
“I’m still skeptical of the entire project, if it’s going to work in the United States or even here, but I have higher hopes for it now,” Karasinski said before leaving Scandinavia. “I really want it to work. I’m looking forward to getting on the block and proving to the Norwegians that we can do better than them.”
Bringing the Nordic Model Back Home
Nothing was off the table as the Department of Corrections began devising plans for Little Scandinavia. What could be done to make the physical facility more cheerful? How many inmates would be in each cell? What kind of training would officers receive? And could officers and inmates eat meals together? (Longstanding policy made fraternization grounds for termination.)
In the process, leadership allowed the corrections officers to propose new guidelines.
“The policies and the changes were conceived of and at least partly developed by the correctional officers,” Hyatt says, noting that the fraternization policy was completely rewritten to allow meal sharing and informal conversation. “The leaders supported them and participated in that decision, but I think that’s something that makes this project unique.”
Six men serving life sentences were chosen for what was envisioned as a two-month trial, during which time they would provide input in the design of Little Scandinavia and after which they would serve as peer mentors. While the pandemic upended that timeframe, the project slowly moved forward.
Extensive renovations brightened the unit and introduced new amenities and individual cells.
Importantly, the Department of Corrections agreed to select the unit’s 58 additional inhabitants by lottery. This was the fairest process, and it would allow the researchers to make the most meaningful comparisons of outcomes between those living in Little Scandinavia and the general population, Andersen says.
Will It Work?
Ongoing research by Hyatt and his colleagues will measure Little Scandinavia’s impact on inmates, correctional staff and — eventually — recidivism rates. Social, economic and cultural differences between the United States and Scandinavia may make it impossible to match Norway’s low reported recidivism rate, Hyatt observes, yet opportunities to improve community reentry outcomes in Pennsylvania are abundant.
In the first half of 2022, Hyatt spent one or two days at SCI Chester each week, conducting research, problem-solving and working with Department of Corrections personnel to refine the model. He leads a team of faculty and staff researchers who will continue to collect data.
Pennsylvania has covered operational costs associated with Little Scandinavia, and the research team garnered additional grant funding from sources including Arnold Ventures and the Nordic Research Council for Criminology.
One study published in Criminal Justice Studies in 2021 has already explored morale among corrections personnel. Hyatt joined lead author Veronica Horowitz of the State University of New York at Buffalo and other colleagues to contrast the views of Department of Corrections leaders and officers from SCI Chester before and after their visits to Scandinavia. The officers reported less stress and more desire to go to work after their overseas experience, and attributed their improved mood to appealing food, comfortable uniforms, relaxed contact with inmates and information sharing among staff.
The special unit that opened in 2022 includes planter boxes, exercise equipment, an aquarium and a communal kitchen where the men prepare meals they can share.
The department’s leadership sees tremendous promise in the SPP.
“The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is very excited about the Little Scandinavia project at SCI Chester,” Acting Secretary George Little says. “This collaborative research trial will help us refine best practices to provide safer and more humane correctional operations across the Department. Hopefully, this will lead to better outcomes for residents, re-entrants and our staff.”
For men housed in Little Scandinavia, a transformation has already begun.
“I’m excited,” says Joseph Spinks, who has been incarcerated for 29 years. “I hope it’s a step toward re-entering society.”
The simple pleasures of eating banana pancakes and homemade stromboli were a revelation for Kevin Bowman.
“All I’ve ever seen before was like dark, dismal places,” Bowman says. “Yes, we’re inmates. But the biggest thing is: We’re humans.”