denmark prison system

How Does the Denmark Prison System Work?

We all understand prisons to be highly secure and confined spaces that host some of the world’s most dangerous criminals. So, governments around the world are investing billions of dollars in setting up maximum security prisons and correctional facilities with highly advanced security systems to prevent inmates from escaping.

But this is not the case with Denmark’s prison system. If you want to learn how Denmark’s prison system works, this article has all the answers you need.

Denmark Prison System


The Denmark prison system is different from other systems across the world because the country focuses more on the humane treatment of prisoners than keeping them away from the general population.

Compared to the United States, which boasts the largest prison system in the world, the prison system in Denmark seems to be putting the welfare of prisoners at the center of its operations. This model of running correctional facilities seems to be working perfectly in Denmark.

Currently, prison facilities around the world are based on two main theories, namely; retribution and rehabilitation theories. The theory of retribution is founded on the belief that criminals must be punished and made to pay for their crimes. So, prisons operating under this principle focus on ensuring that prisoners are subjected to punishments that are proportional to the crimes they committed.

This theory mainly focuses on punishment and overlooks other factors like societal underpinnings that may cause people to be involved in crime. Unfortunately, the retribution theory is known to result in divisions between prisoners and societies. It also encourages future criminality and increases the rate of recidivism.

The theory of rehabilitation, on the other hand, encourages dealing with the reasons why the prisoner is involved in criminal activities, instead of punishing the prisoner. This system focuses on solving the factors that contribute to crime in society like the lack of education, work, poor interpersonal relationships, etc. Ultimately, this helps to prevent people from getting involved in crime.

Punishing crime while ignoring the reasons why people engage in crime has proved to be a costly endeavor because governments have to spend more taxpayers’ money punishing criminals by building more prisons.

But the rehabilitation theory works to retrain and reintegrate prisoners back into society, thus making them better and more productive members of society. The main elements of the rehabilitation prison system are based on the concept of “normalization”, which encourages correctional facilities to be designed in a way that resembles the outside world.

This prison system is designed to teach prisoners how to live normal and fulfilling lives out there while they’re still incarcerated so that it becomes easy for them to reintegrate back into society when they’re done serving their prison time. This is the model being used in Denmark. The rehabilitation system allows prisoners to attend classes, work the normal workweek (37 hours), and do their own domestic chores like shopping, cooking, laundry, etc.

If a prisoner is married, they are allowed to live with their spouses and even their kids, especially if the children are below three years old. This concept has led to a sharp decline in the rate of recidivism in countries that have embraced it. It has also helped prisoners to transition from their prison life to everyday life outside prison.

How Does the Denmark Prison System Work?


As mentioned above, the prison system in Denmark is quite different from the one used in the U.S.A. and other parts of the world. While the United States prison system adopts the retribution theory, the one in Denmark is based on the rehabilitation theory.

So, while the US authorities focus on punishing crime and keeping dangerous criminals locked away completely, Danish authorities seek to rehabilitate their prisoners and make them better members of society.

So, the two prison systems are quite different, in terms of their operations and mission. Here are other unique ways in which the Danish prison system is different from other prison systems in the world.

1. Building Mutual Trust

In Denmark, prisons don’t have the typical high perimeter walls and have very few prison officers to guard and supervise inmates. Prison officials even accept the fact that prisoners can escape. This is unheard of in many other countries where prisons are characterized by tall concrete perimeter walls and barbed wire fences with snipers stationed at different watch towers.

Danish prison officials argue that allowing a prisoner to escape helps to keep other inmates and prison staff from harm. They add that implementing highly advanced security systems in correctional facilities doesn’t prevent cases of drug smuggling, fights, and attempts to escape. Danish prison officials don’t search prisoners when they’re coming in, or even conduct routine searches, because they want to preserve every prisoner’s dignity.

In prison systems that are based on punishing inmates, the implementation of strict drug enforcement and breakout prevention policies is a top priority. Danish prison authorities use reverse psychology to manage their correctional facilities by doing away with stringent policies like preventing prisoners from escaping. They argue that this technique prevents acts of violence in their facilities. It also helps to build mutual trust between the inmates and prison officials.

That’s why there are very few cases of serious violence in Danish prisons compared to countries like America. Danish authorities attribute this trend to their efforts to treat all prisoners humanely and preserve their dignity so that they don’t feel like they are trapped within the four corners of their prison cells. This prevents prisoners from acting out repeatedly.

Prisoners in Denmark are allowed to visit their families, go to work, attend classes, and do other regular chores during the day provided they return to prison within the set curfew. If you fail to return to prison before the curfew or disrespect the prison rules, you’re moved to a closed prison where more serious criminals are housed. Furthermore, prisoners in open correctional facilities wear their preferred clothes and aren’t locked in cells.

This prison system is centered on rehabilitating and normalizing offenders instead of punishing and deterring them. It has kept the rate of recidivism in the country very low, at about 27 percent. The rate of recidivism in closed prisons in Denmark is at around 40 percent. This shows the kind of negative effect that closed prisons have on inmates.

2. Retraining and Rehabilitating Prisoners

As discussed above, closed, maximum-security prisons are more likely to increase the rate of recidivism in inmates than open prisons. For instance, in Denmark where there are only 73 prisoners for every 100,000 citizens, the rate of recidivism is only 27 percent, compared to the United States where there are 730 prisoners for every 100,000 citizens. The rate of recidivism in the US is about 76.6 percent.

This shows that over ¾ of American inmates who leave prison are re-arrested within five years. Experts attribute the high rate of recidivism in America to the harsh conditions in the country’s prisons, which make it hard for prisoners to reform. If inmates aren’t fully rehabilitated when they are leaving prison, it’s very hard for them to reintegrate into society. So, they end up committing crimes and going back to jail.

Additionally, even small-time offenders in America are subjected to prolonged imprisonment and the same harsh conditions as serious criminals. Since these greenhorns have to spend time in cramped prison cells alongside career criminals, they end up learning how to commit serious crimes. So, instead of getting rehabilitated, they become hardened criminals.

Prisoners in Denmark, on the other hand, are subjected to a more humane environment that supports their efforts to reform, ultimately making them better members of society. By allowing prisoners to interact freely with the outside world and giving them their dignity, the rehabilitative prison system in Denmark encourages inmates to stay away from crime thus reducing the rate of recidivism significantly.

About 60 percent of inmates in Denmark are in open prisons. Only those who have committed serious crimes are locked up in closed facilities. But even those ones can eventually be moved to open prisons, depending on their improvements.

Moreover, the average sentence in Denmark is 6 months, depending on the offense committed. Lighter sentencing and the freedom to interact with the outside world while you are still incarcerated help Danish prisoners to reintegrate into society quickly and successfully. Every Danish prisoner is allocated a “contact officer” who monitors their progress and helps them to become better citizens as they prepare to reintegrate into society.

This not only helps inmates to reintegrate into society quickly and effectively, but it also helps prison officers to avoid psychological damage likely to be imposed by prolonged exposure to punitive tasks like using brutal force on inmates, locking inmates down, etc. Since most American prison officers are exposed to this kind of work every day, they end up suffering from hypertension, suicide, stress, drug abuse, and alcoholism, among other vices.

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