Interview with Nils Oberg, Director-General of Sweden’s Prison Service
by Ian Sinclair
5 December 2014
“I am very reluctant on giving anyone advice on how they construct their criminal policies”, Nils Öberg says.
This humble attitude, though polite, masks the fact Öberg, the Director-General of Sweden’s Prison and Probation Service, has much to teach the UK about crime and punishment. Indeed, the expertise he has gained from running one of the most progressive prison systems on the planet is the reason he gave the annual Longford Trust lecture on penal reform in London last week.
Talking to me before the lecture, Öberg, 54, explains that Sweden’s prison population has been falling since 2004, to around 5,500 prisoners today, including those held on remand. This translates to about 57 prisoners per 100,000 people – one of the lowest rates in Europe. With their prison population falling 6 percent this year Sweden has been able to close four of their 56 prisons. In contrast, as of October 2014 England and Wales had over 85,000 people behind bars – around 149 prisoners per 100,000 people, one of the highest rates in Europe. In his recent annual report the chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales highlighted a shocking 69 percent rise in prison suicides in a system characterised by overcrowding, rising violence and worsening safety.
How does Öberg explain the significant reduction in prison numbers in Sweden? “We have a couple of educated guesses and hypotheses”, he replies. First, he notes the courts have for a number of years been giving out more lenient sentences, particularly for drug related offences. This follows a 2011 decision by Sweden’s Supreme Court which reduced sentences for serious drug offences, such as drug smuggling. “So that, in combination, would mean the total prison years will shrink as a result of more lenient sentencing”, he says. He also thinks that the recent reorganisation of the police force from 21 independent local forces into one national force may well have affected the efficiency of its criminal investigations and therefore level of convictions. Finally, he hopes the prison service’s investment in rehabilitation has helped to reduce reoffending. The rate of reoffending in Sweden currently stands between 30 – 40 percent after three years – again, one of the lowest rates in Europe.
“The prison sentence is the punishment”, Öberg explains. “We don’t see our role and purpose to punish while the clients and inmates are with us. Our prime purpose is to prepare them for reintegration into society as best we can.” He continues: “We try to keep our focus on addressing all the various issues that our inmates and clients bring with them”. These range from “a very loose connection to the job market to very serious health problems or mental health problems, or broken social relations in general, drug addiction or substance abuse.”
Researching the topic before the interview, I am struck by the relative comfort that prisoners seem to experience in Swedish prisons. Newspapers would be screaming “prison is like a holiday camp!” if similar conditions existed in the UK. Öberg has little time for this argument: “Anyone who holds that view doesn’t know very much about what it is like to be in prison. Anybody in the profession, wherever you are in the world, will know the human cost of incarceration.” Part of blame for the public’s ignorance lies with the prison service itself, he believes: “It perhaps reflects our own inability to educate the public on what we are actually doing and what it is like to be relieved of your freedom for a shorter or longer period of time.”
Öberg’s unwillingness to blame others is also evident in his thoughts on the role of the media. I tell him that significant sections of the British press arguably play an unhelpful role in the politics of criminal justice, amplifying the public’s fear of crime and often pushing for harsher sentencing. For example, the Prison Reform Trust’s latest briefing notes that 45 percent of crimes reported in newspapers in the UK involve sex or violence, compared with only 3 percent of actual reported crime. “I don’t recognise that description”, he replies. He’s referring to Sweden, though his answer applies beyond his country’s border. “Everywhere you go you have cases of violent crimes and tragic stories about victims of crime who have suffered tremendously from the crimes beings committed, but that’s just a reality in any society. That’s the problem. Media’s not the problem.”
However, he does note one significant difference between the Swedish and UK media. “There is a self-censorship in our media when it comes to children. So a child that will have committed a serious crime, the moment the media realises the story is about somebody underage that story goes cold and will not be published for obvious reasons.” It may be obvious to Öberg but one need only think of the endless and lurid press coverage of children who have committed crimes in the UK to realise just how far apart our two nations are on this issue. Sweden’s unofficial agreement is no doubt helped by the fact their age of criminal responsibility is 15 – one of the highest in Europe. In England and Wales it is 10 – one of the lowest in Europe (do you see a pattern emerging yet?). According to The Guardian’s prison correspondent Erwin James, in the UK a life sentence can be handed down to a 10-year old, while in Sweden no one under the age of 21 can be sentenced to life.
Another key difference between our two countries, Öberg explains in his lecture, is there is very little overt political interference in the running of the Swedish prison and probation service. Öberg notes, for example, that criminal justice was not part of the political debate during the recent general elections in Sweden.
Throughout the lecture it’s refreshing to hear Öberg repeatedly refer to pragmatic policies which are based on scientific evidence. Compare this, again, to the press-infused, evidence-free political debate in this country with Labour and the Tories trying to outdo each other on being tougher on crime and criminals. Underpinning this unedifying political spectacle is the assumption that toughness is synonymous with effectiveness. Sweden’s liberal prison service shows this popular canard up for the lie it is. As writer Johann Hari wrote over ten years ago: “The choice is not between ‘tough’ and ‘soft’ it is between effective and useless. ‘Tough’ policies – put them in an empty cell and leave them to rot and rape each other – just don’t work. It is not those of us who want rehabilitation who are betraying the mugged grannies and the burgled primary schools – it is the [Michael] Howards and the [David] Blunketts, who choose facile posturing over policies that actually work.”