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Tender Justice: North Dakota Is Conducting a Prison Experiment Unlike Anything in the United States

Governing

By David Kidd

Terry Pullins is on his second tour in the North Dakota prison system. He’s also done time in California. Since he never got farther than the fifth grade, the 40-year-old Pullins has spent nearly as much time behind bars as he did in school. But last December brought the most acute punishment he has ever suffered: Pullins lost his daughter in a car accident.

Most inmates in most prisons endure that sort of grief alone. But Pullins is at the Missouri River Correctional Center near Bismarck, N.D. This is a prison designed as much as possible to imitate life on the outside. The warden and staff rallied around him. “Every day I needed help,” Pullins says. “Those two weeks were rough, but they were there for me. I don’t always feel like I’m in prison. I feel like I’m somewhere bettering myself.”

North Dakota has always been a low-crime state, but it has paid a high price for the wars on drugs and crime over the past few decades. Since 1992, the state’s population has increased less than 20 percent, but the number of inmates has gone up 250 percent and is projected to continue to rise. North Dakota is trying to prevent that from happening by taking correctional cues from a distant and unlikely source: the prison system in Norway.

Norwegian prisons reject life sentences and solitary confinement in favor of living quarters built on a human scale, behavioral counseling and a focus on successful re-entry into society. The correctional facilities are often derided as being more like country clubs than prisons. But their results back up claims of success. Norway reports two-year recidivism rates as low as 20 percent, compared to rates three times higher in the U.S.

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