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One of Pa.’s prison units is about to go Scandinavian

FILE PHOTO: In this Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 file photo, an inmate and artist named Ezra poses for a portrait at the State Correctional Institution in Chester, Pa. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

FILE PHOTO: In this Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 file photo, an inmate and artist named Ezra poses for a portrait at the State Correctional Institution in Chester, Pa. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Pennsylvania’s prison system is launching a pilot program to test alternate corrections techniques — and they’re looking to Nordic countries for inspiration.

A group of about a dozen corrections officers recently returned from a trip to Norway, Sweden and Denmark, where they spent several weeks working in prisons. Now, they’re refurbishing a housing unit to try out what they learned.

Marirosa Lamas, the superintendent of the State Correctional Institution at Chester, led the delegation on the trip. A 29-year veteran of the Pennsylvania system, she is its longest-serving superintendent.

She said she has always been aware of a dominant philosophy about what prisons should do.

“Some folks believe that if we punish individuals, that if we make their conditions of confinement just horrendous, that they will have some atonement,” she said.

But Lamas questions that mindset.

“You see folks blogging about this or that, about ‘give them bread and water,’” she said. “Where is that supported by facts? It’s not.”

In contrast, she said the main punishment in Scandinavian prisons is a loss of freedom. Beyond that, she said the atmosphere seemed focused on rehabilitation.

That, she said, is the mindset she’s hoping will drive the DOC’s pilot, which will start to roll out in November. It’s a collaboration with Drexel University and will involve retrofitting a housing unit at SCI Chester using ideas from Scandinavia and filling it with randomly selected inmates.

“There will be areas in which they are allowed to go read,” she said of the additional freedoms inmates will have. “Each inmate will be [in a] single cell.”

Lamas said her own approach to corrections — which DOC Secretary John Wetzel also espouses — isn’t always the norm among corrections staff. The union that represents many officers, for instance, tends to be most concerned about staff safety.

For example, Larry Blackwell, the head of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association has advocated letting corrections officers punish inmates with restricted housing—otherwise known as solitary confinement—more frequently.

A spokeswoman for the union said they’re still reviewing the pilot program.

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