Sheriff Joe vs. Norway: Who Better Fixes Inmates?

I hope I never get arrested for any of my hilarious pranks, but if the day should come, the last place I’d like to be caught is in Phoenix, Arizona. Not just because of the heat and my aversion to the overuse of bland adobe houses. Because of the county’s judicial warlord, Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Joe Arpaio (colloquially known as “Sheriff Joe”) propounds to be the toughest sheriff in the country. He’s certainly the nastiest in terms of prisoner treatment. He is the embodiment of punitive judicial thought: prisons exist to punish evil-doers. The harsher the sentence, the less likely felons are to resume unsavory activities upon release, and the more deterred potential criminals are from committing crimes in the first place. This contrasts sharply with utilitarian thinking, which centers around the notion that prisons exist to rehabilitate criminals to re-enter society.

Which system is better?

Sheriff Joe spearheaded a program issuing inmates pink underwear in order to emasculate and embarrass them, much to the amusement of guards.

On a less benign level, he is responsible for the creation of “Tent City.” When faced with prison overcrowding and the need for a new facility, Sheriff Joe declined to build a $70 million complex, and instead cordoned off a plot of desert with barbed wire and a guard tower, then pitched several hundred tents left over from the Korean War. All at the bargain cost of $100,000.

While his fiscal restraint is laudable, tent city is in the desert, and its temperature hits levels which would otherwise violate the Geneva Accords. In July 2011 inmates complained when the heat index inside of their tents reached 145 °F, and their shoes began to melt. Sheriff Joe’s inmates are provided only two meals a day, which sometimes includes green bologna.

Sheriff Joe’s logic is summed up by his position on coffee. He quit serving jail java on the grounds that it has no nutritional value. When prisoners complained, he responded with, “This isn’t the Ritz Carlton. If you don’t like it, don’t come back.”

His rationale has great appeal to gritty disciplinarians. Criminals are evil: Punish them. If America treated outlaws more harshly, they would straighten up and fly right.

Contrast this with the Scandinavian model. The Norwegian penal system more or less operates like a summer camp for felons. Bastøy, their prison island, is like if Disneyland ran Alcatraz. Prisoners live in quaint cottages, play soccer and more or less wander about freely. They’re assigned farming chores, but during their free time they can pet and ride horses or go for a nice swim on the beach. Bastøy offers therapy sessions, art classes and vocational training to eventually re-integrate its wards into normal blond society.

Norwegian logic is summed up by Bastøy’s prison governor, Arne Kvernvik Nilsen: “Both society and the individual simply have to put aside their desire for revenge, and stop focusing on prisons as places of punishment and pain. Depriving a person of their freedom for a period of time is sufficient punishment in itself without any need whatsoever for harsh prison conditions.”

From a sheer financial perspective, we ought to side with Nilsen. Noting that it’s difficult to compare prisoner statistics between vastly different countries and demographics, Norway’s recidivism rate (when a released felon commits a crime and returns to prison) is shockingly low. The average recidivism rate in Europe is 70-75%. In Norway it’s 20%.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council found that 83.8% of the state’s current inmates had prior adult felony conviction or juvenile adjudications, and 56% had two or more prior felonies.

Financially speaking, the Norwegian model of resort-style prisons is a lot cheaper overall. Because the felons don’t come back: they go get jobs.

Personally, I would like a mixture of the two systems. Outside of truly heinous crimes, I would endorse a mix of 80% Norwegian-style rehabilitation and 20% punishment.

In Norway the maximum prison sentence length is twenty-one years. For everything. Murder, rape, tearing the tags off mattresses– all offenders are eventually readmitted to society. By my lights there are certain people who are simply unfixable and need to be locked up permanently for public safety.

By that same token, treating people like animals does not strike me as a good recipe to reintroduce them to society. If you spend five years getting beaten, sexually assaulted and inducted into Neo-Nazi prison gangs, it’s unlikely you’ll emotionally adjust to life in the suburbs and find a nice job as an insurance salesmen. People network, even in prison, which means you’re more likely to leave with tips on how to rob houses and hide corpses.

Overall, long prison sentences in brutal conditions provide a feeling of justice and revenge for citizens, but that retribution comes at a high price. Hardened prisoners are more likely to commit crimes again once on the outside. That makes our communities less safe, and it also means we pay more in taxes to incarcerate them during their victory laps.


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 Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.


  • August 6, 2012 - 10:50 am | Permalink

    You should see if Joe Arpaio will allow you to do prison comedy classes.

    • Heaton
      August 6, 2012 - 2:40 pm | Permalink

      I’d take him up on it. “Felons, today we shall be reading James Thurber. What did you all think of the Benchley reading from last week?”

  • Sheriff Joe
    November 21, 2012 - 4:29 am | Permalink

    I stumbled upon this after googling “green bologna.” (Man’s gotta eat.) Pretty goddamn hilarious. I especially like the boy scout cartoon. While I lack the technological savvy to “like” something on the facebook, I will at least be bookmarking it. Plus I sent the link to a friend, so that’s something.

    • Heaton
      November 26, 2012 - 5:23 pm | Permalink

      Glad you liked it, and much obliged!

  • Maggie Stewart
    December 15, 2012 - 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Those of us who grew up in Arizona have to laugh at the absurdity of all those who call tent city heat inhumane. Air conditioning is more commonplace today than when I was a kid; however, as I drive around Maricopa County, AZ any day of the year, thousands of people are working or playing in the heat—cops, construction workers, landscapers, farmers, road builders, ranchers, military, painters, roofers……kids and adults golfing, walking dogs, playing sports. Get the point? Dealing with heat is a way of life, as is dealing with the cold in North Dakota.

    The pink underwear and handcuffs was to curb theft!

    Feel free to send some of your Starbuck’s money to MCSO .

  • Naomi B
    August 23, 2013 - 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Awesome article!! :)

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  • November 12, 2013 - 4:13 pm | Permalink

    You are comparing predominantly white, Norwegians to American blacks and hispanics. Culturally and financially they are worlds apart. The rate comparison means nothing. Apples and oranges.

    • November 12, 2013 - 6:15 pm | Permalink

      I agree that a lot of “Europe does this” policies don’t apply to the US–particularly given that most European countries would be more comparable to our own states, rather than federal equivalent. (There is no “European” health care, for instance, since no continent-wide program exists.) However the general principle that rehabilitation is cheaper than repeated incarceration remains valid. What’s more, if we drop Norway as a corollary, we could still look at US prison data and ask: “Is someone more or less likely to leave prison violent and unemployable, or skilled and placid?” The data indicates that our current prison system is costly and fairly ineffective, and there is little to no data indicating that Sheriff Joe has struck onto an improvement.

  • Matt Voiland
    August 3, 2016 - 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been there for a DUI. 15 days in August definitely a place I don’t want to go to again.
    It’s also a county jail not a prison. Everybody there ges assigned a job in the various facilities, I got tray washer. It sucked an I got De Quevrians tendonitis in my forearm. They took care of it and I returned to work. Just like anyplace else it’s what you make of it. I came out with a healthy respect for most of the CO’s that work there.

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