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Life Inside

I Struggled to Help a Prisoner. In Norway, I Found a Better Way

“We took off his wrist restraints and gave him pen and paper. He drew up a storm.”

I was visiting prisons in Norway, but I kept thinking about Mr. G back home.

By 2018, I’d been working in “segregation” units for more than a decade, having come to corrections after working security in a hospital, managing aggressive behavior in the E.R. At the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, I worked with people who had to be isolated from the rest of the population because they posed a serious management concern. Many had a mental illness. I thought there wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen.

At the time, Mr. G was probably our biggest challenge. He was in prison for assault and ‘aggravated’ harassment and he had been diagnosed with severe mental illness. He told us that he’d been a productive member of society until a psychological break in his 30s. He would smear feces all over his cell. He would hit his forehead against the wall until it opened up, and then keep aggravating the wound; for much of 2016 and 2017, the wound never closed. He would yell all day and night, until he was hoarse, all about raping people, killing people, killing the president. He didn’t have voices in his head, but he had poor impulse control: if his mind suggested he do something aggressive, he would just do it.

It boiled down to control. He was punishing the staff, because when he’d hurt himself we’d need to take him out of his cell and take him to medical. He was so restricted that this was one of his only ways of expressing frustration. If we’d come to the front of his cell when he was screaming, he would stop and apologize, and we would write if off—‘It’s just Mr. G being Mr. G’—and move on to help someone else. But then he’d start up again.

Because of this behavior, he was rarely let out of his cell. He would lose his daily privileges, meaning he only really got out for rec for about two hours a week, for showers, and whenever a trained team had to go in and clean up the feces in his cell.

He was trapped in a cycle. We were trapped in a cycle. In Norway, I realized how much I had to learn.

Our agency is working with Amend, an American organization that exposes correctional officers here to the way they do things in Europe. In the Fall of 2018, we traveled to a number of prisons in Norway, shadowing people with jobs similar to our own. We slept at the homes of Norwegian officers and shared meals with them.

Some of the prisons looked extremely different from our own—more like college campuses, with lots of trees and stores and libraries—but I felt more familiarity at Ila Detention and Security Prison, outside Oslo, which houses a population similar to our own behavioral health unit. They told us they break the cycle of aggressive behavior and isolation by treating every day as an opportunity to start over and meet the men where they’re at. The day before, you’ve exhausted every method of making their day better, but the next morning, you start over, asking yourself: What can we do to give that person a better day?

They were very into having conversations without any physical barrier. In our own prisons, when we talk to a prisoner in their cell, we are on the other side of metal bars. In Norway, they just have doors, and they open them and stand in the doorway, and they believed this would lead to a more normal, human conversation.

While in Norway, seeing these spic and span prisons, sometimes I would think, Surely they don’t have the same issues, surely they don’t have guys smearing feces around the cells and attacking officers. So I decided to test them. I volunteered to play the role of a prisoner, and when a Norwegian officer tried to talk to me I charged at him. He was well trained, and pinned me down to the floor. “Are you done now?” he asked. “Can we stand up?” It wasn’t what he said, but how he said it: He was so calm.

Some things we couldn’t bring over, like the staffing ratios. They told us that throughout the country, they have roughly one staff member for each person incarcerated, while here in Oregon we have roughly 4,400 staff for a population of 14,800. But we felt we could learn from how they talked, how they treated each day as a new day.

When we returned, and spent more time training with Amend, we kept talking about Mr. G in particular: If we can help him, we thought, we can help anyone.

We had a recreational cell that had been repainted with a tropical theme, full of waterfalls and birds and a beach scene. (One of our bosses was Hawaiian and said the most relaxing environment he could think of was a beach.) We put Mr. G in belly restraints, with his wrists at his waist, and escorted him to the room. He was in awe at all the colors, and he started talking up a storm. We chatted with him, asking, have you ever seen a beach? Where did you used to go on vacation? We’d never had these conversations before: we were so busy managing the behavior that we weren’t thinking as much about the person. He told us he was an artist, and that he liked to draw and paint.

We took off his wrist restraints and gave him pen and paper. He drew up a storm: faces of clowns, of Yoda. We debriefed and we thought, What if the smearing feces is something we could connect to something more appropriate?

Then we thought, What if we repaint his cell with chalkboard paint?

Now, he covers everything with art. He draws a lot of rabbits. He does watercolors of flowers with his counselor.

He also told us he used to play in a band. There was a guitar in the unit, and we’d never felt comfortable giving it to him before because we were afraid of what he’d do with the materials, but he just immediately launched into “Jailhouse Blues.”

He’s getting out of his cell a lot more, going to art class and movie class, where prisoners use movies to discuss conflict resolution. We’ll just put him in a room before or after a meal, with a pen and paper. It sounds so simple, but it slows his mind down, and helps him avoid aggressive, impulsive behavior. He stopped smearing feces for months at a time.

And we’ve taken this approach to the rest of the unit. We don’t have enough staff to take people to the tropical room all the time, but correctional officers will give up their breaks and lunches to take guys there, knowing it will give them a better day.

Amend, the organization working with the prison on this new approach, conducted an interview with my wife. She said I’d done a 180 socially, reacting more thoughtfully to tense situations. She says I “Norway our children,” responding in a calm way when our 5-year-old is acting out. Hearing her speak, I got goosebumps. I thought I was so good at being a dad, at being an officer. But going to Norway helped me be a better person.

Toby Tooley is a correctional captain at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Oregon. He supervises the state’s death row, the prison’s disciplinary segregation unit and three independent mental-health housing units.

Maurice Chammah Twitter Email is a staff writer and host of the podcast “Just Say You're Sorry,” as well as the author of “Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty.” He writes narrative features on a range of criminal justice subjects, including the death penalty, forensics and art and music by incarcerated people.