Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Plata v. Brown, the author toured prison systems in Western Europe with a University of Maryland study abroad program and then again with corrections and public officials from three states. The goal of the first trip was to compare and contrast competing correctional systems. The second trip was designed to expose relevant public officials to different penological values and practices. Both groups quickly appreciated the profound differences in conditions and philosophies. Even though imprisonment in these European countries is a last resort, prisons are designed to be as “normal” as possible. The State’s responsibility goes past the constitutional minimum under the Eighth Amendment to provide food, clothing, shelter and personal safety. Reintegration into the community—not punishment—is the primary objective. These values translated to conditions and programs that are more humane and effective than those typically found in the United States. Correctional leaders used this experience to put into place programs limiting the housing of the mentally ill prisoners in segregation, improving reentry programs, and “normalizing” some prison units. Direct and personal exposure to European prison and criminal justice systems promoted humane and effective prisons at home.
- © 2014 Vera Institute of Justice