What Country Is Shutting Down Prisons (Because It Has Too Many)?

Sweden is closing four of its prisons due to a “sharp fall” in the number of prison admissions in the past two years. “We have seen an out-of-the-ordinary decline in the number of inmates,” says Nils Oberg, the head of Sweden’s prison and probation services, in the Guardian. Accordingly, Sweden is taking “the opportunity to close down a part of our infrastructure that we don’t need at this point of time.”

The number of prisoners in Sweden, a country with a low rate of incarceration to begin with, hasfallen by 1 percent every year since 2004, according to the Guardian. It fell by 6 percent between 2011 and 2012 and is expected to decline again this year, Oberg notes. Two prisons will be sold and two others passed to the government for temporary use, though two prisons could be reopened if necessary.

Since 2004 when the Swedish prison population peaked at 5,722, it has now fallen by a sixth. Out of a population of 9.5 million, 4,852 people were in prison in Sweden in 2012.

More Lenient Policies and a Liberal Approach

The big question is — certainly for those of us living in the United States, which has the highest prison population in the world, with 716 inmates per 100,000 people vs. 51 per 100,000 in Sweden — how has the Scandinavian country achieved the feat of having a declining prison population?

Oberg acknowledges that “nobody” knows the reason for sure but, as he comments, he hopes that “Sweden’s liberal prison approach, with its strong focus on rehabilitating prisoners” has played a part.

Hanns von Hofer, a criminology professor at Stockholm University, backs up Oberg’s point, noting that there has been a “recent shift in policy towards probationary sanctions instead of short prison sentences for minor thefts, drugs offenses and violent crimes” in Sweden. Regarding the declining numbers of inmates between 2004 and 2012, von Hofer says that 36 percent was for those convicted of offenses related to theft, 25 percent was for those convicted of drug offenses and 12 percent for those who had carried out violent crimes.

Sweden has also instituted more lenient sentences for some crimes in recent years. For instance, in 2011, Sweden’s supreme court ruled that the courts should give more lenient sentences to drug offenses. As a result, as of last March, about 200 fewer people were serving time for drug sentences than in the year before.

Some Types of Crime in Sweden Have Actually Increased

As  points out in the International Business Times, while the number of prisoners in Sweden has fallen, crime has not necessarily decreased. Citing data from the Swedish government’s National Council for Crime Prevention, Ghosh points out that the number of drug crimes, fraud and some types of burglary has actually gone up since 2010:

For example, in 2012, Sweden recorded about 94,400 drug-related crimes, a 6 percent increase from the previous year. Over the past decade, reported drug crimes have doubled (although the Council cautions that the data does not prove conclusively that drug abuse has climbed by that magnitude).

Ghosh also observes that, for all that Sweden has a global image as a country with a huge regard for human rights and the cultivation of a humane society in its approach to criminal justice, the European Union’s anti-torture office condemned it four years ago “for its practice of imposing lengthy periods of isolation for some prisoners in its system – up to 18 months at a time.” Notably, about one-third of prisoners in Sweden are foreigners.

Is Sweden’s Decline in Prisoners Only Temporary?

Oberg is not certain if the decline in prisoners in Sweden is ”a long-term trend” that represents “a change in paradigm.” What is significant, he notes, is that “the pressure on the criminal justice system has dropped markedly in recent years.”

Oberg still thinks the Swedish government could do more to rehabilitate prisoners. In an opinion piece for Sweden’s DN newspaper (in which he announced that the closure of the four prisons), Oberg has called on the country to do even more to help prisoners, especially after they have been released and are being reintegrated into society.

It’s a stance that is quite the opposite of calls to “get tough on crime” and of “three strikes and you’re out” laws in the United States, where more than 3,000 prisoners are serving life sentences without parole for non-violent crimes including shoplifting. Sweden’s “problem” of having too few prisoners offers evidence for why the United States needs to review its drug-sentencing protocol and undertake prison reform.

Photo from Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Daniel May
Daniel May4 years ago

Ty for info .

Emily Irvine
Emily Irvine4 years ago

We should take note of what is working for them and see how we can improve our numbers.

Janis K.
Janis K4 years ago

Sweden is doing so many things right, and the US is doing all the wrong things. We need a major change in this country, we've allowed the prison system to become big business, and big business cares for nothing but money! Read The New Jim Crow by M Alexander..

Walter G.
Walter G4 years ago

Our prisons are over-crowded and run on a very coistly basis as businesses. Well, the solution is at hand. Just send the overload to Sweden, and work out a payment schedule, which will probably be much cheaper than incarceration in these businesses we have here. While we're at it, we can empty out Gitmo Bay into Sweden's system, if that works, we can contract those floating coffins called “cruise liners” to start carrying over droves of prisoners. I can hear “The love boat” theme song in the background now.

Brian Foster
Brian F4 years ago

The real criminals in America are our republican politicians and our police force that enforces our corrupt drug laws, and aids and abets our criminal for profit prison industry. Republican politicians are paid millions from dirty polluting coal, oil, and natural gas companies, as well as Walmart, and America's biggest corporations, to keep their tax rates low, and eliminate the minimum wage, so corporations can amass record profits, pay little to no taxes, and pay low wages, to their employees, so their employee's can live in poverty. Our sick criminal private for profit prison industry pays off venal republicans, and our judges, lawyers, and police to keep our tough drug laws in place, eliminate paroles, and keep tough mandatory minimums in place, to fill every bed, and increase their profits. America is 4% of the world's population, and has 25% of the world's prison inmates. More than 3,000 nonviolent inmates are serving life sentences. America's prisons only punish mostly the poor white, black, and Hispanic people, criminalizing, and ruining their lives, for small time drug possession, with no possibilities of rehabilitation. Rapes, are common in America's prison's with full consent of the guards, who are paid criminals and thugs.

Marc P.
Marc P4 years ago

Sweden's prisons are not privately owned. Thus there is no political/business interest in keeping the inmate population artificially inflated.

Joseph Belisle
Joseph Belisle4 years ago

Lots of good posts. Read Stanley Rs and Jacqueline Vs to start.
The only thing I'd like to add is it seems that in Sweden prisons are state run so it's not a business like it's here in the states.

Carol P.
Carol P4 years ago

Well-written post that doesn't pass judgment but gives us enough information to form opinions.

Karen Gee4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.