A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West.

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Think you know how education works in Swedish prisons? You might be surprised.

Those involved with criminal justice reform in the United States understandably gaze across the Atlantic with envy. With an approach more often focused on rehabilitation than punishment, the Nordic countries beat us on almost all metrics, ranging from incarceration rates to recidivism. Earlier this year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom drew inspiration from “the Norwegian model” in his plans for transforming San Quentin – the state’s oldest prison – into a center of rehabilitation.

But it’s easy to put the Nordic countries up on a pedestal – and to lump them all together. (I’m always interested in anything related to that region of the world because I lived in Sweden for seven years and did my master’s there.)

You might be surprised to learn that in Swedish prisons, for example, university-level education was eliminated in 2019. When I visited Stockholm on vacation in June, I was surprised to find that out. Approximately 30 people per year were enrolled in higher education prior to that decision. Since then, there have been no academic opportunities available to incarcerated people who already have a high school diploma.

That’s different from Sweden’s Nordic neighbors. The 2014 Norwegian Education Act guarantees prisoners access to education. People incarcerated at some Finnish prisons can enroll in online classes in high-demand fields such as artificial intelligence, and in Denmark, incarcerated people at some prisons can earn college credit alongside outside students who visit the prison. (Also worth noting is that universities in these countries – including Sweden – usually don’t charge tuition, so the individual costs of instruction are less of a discussion there than they are in the United States).

As of 2022, there were approximately 6,150 people incarcerated in Swedish prisons, according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention. (That’s about the same size as the prison system in West Virginia, although the state only has around 1.7 million residents compared to Sweden’s 10.5 million).

Educating those who have had the fewest opportunities

A sign for the Swedish Prison and Probation Service’s prison at Svartsjö. The men incarcerated there can learn woodworking skills in the prison’s carpentry shop and work on the prison’s farm. Photo: Charlotte West/Open Campus

The shift away from higher ed in prison was a pragmatic decision, rather than a political one.

Lena Broo, an adult education expert at the Swedish prison service, told me that about half of the prison population has less than a grade-school education and officials decided to concentrate their resources on giving those who have had the fewest opportunities the best chance of success once they got out. That means incarcerated people in Sweden can earn up to a high-school diploma while inside.

“To have any kind of chance in today’s job market, the minimum requirement is basically a high school education,” Broo wrote in an email. “That’s what Kriminalvården is focusing on.”

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The prison service has a system-wide network of “learning centers.” The instructional model is hybrid; incarcerated students take computer-based classes offered across the system, but each of the approximately 45 prisons in the country has at least one teacher who provides in-person tutoring. Offering the classes through the agency’s secure network allows students transfer between facilities without interrupting their education, which I’ve previously reported is often a major challenge.

I visited Svartsjö, a minimum-security men’s prison in the countryside outside of Stockholm, this summer. Getting there involved a ride to the end of the subway line and then three bus transfers. (I also strolled around the grounds of the nearby Svartsjöslott, an 18th century castle that served as the predecessor of the current prison from 1891-1966. It’s now an event venue).

The 18th century castle in Svartsjö, Sweden that served as a prison from 1891-1966. It’s now an event venue. Photo: Charlotte West/Open Campus

It’s very different from the U.S. prisons I’ve been to – there was no body scanner, the perimeter is a single chain link fence and the modular housing units are the same classic red associated with Swedish summer houses. During the day, the incarcerated men can leave the premises to work in the nearby wood workshop or to run the prison’s farm.

Although I didn’t meet any students, I sat down with Svartsjö history teacher Henrik Busk. He teaches incarcerated students all over the country through the learning center network. He said that prisoners need to be productively engaged at least six hours a day, whether that be in education, work, or treatment.

He said that one of the biggest challenges the system is dealing with right now is the increasing criminality of young people, many of whom are from immigrant families.

“Most feel that Swedish society isn’t open to them,” Busk said of the growing number of young people in Swedish prisons.

The Swedish government has in recent years adopted more tough-on-crime policies, such as lowering the age for a life sentence and gang enhancements, in response to an increase in shootings and gang violence. These policies that have led to a steady growth in the prison population. The resulting overcrowding has made it difficult to meet the needs of everyone who should be enrolled in education.

Nine university degrees

Ricard Nilsson earned nine university degrees and certificates in prison between 2000 and 2019, when he was released. Photo: Charlotte West/Open Campus

Svartsjö is very different from the maximum security prisons where Ricard Nilsson served almost 20 years of a life sentence. Nilsson was released in 2019 — so he benefited from access to higher-ed offerings before they were eliminated. While incarcerated, Nilsson earned nine degrees and certificates, including a master’s of law. As a result of his education, he was admitted to the Swedish Union of Journalists while he was still incarcerated.

Nilsson was able to enroll in a sociology program shortly after he was incarcerated in 2000. Both outside students and professors visited the prison for some of the lectures. By 2005, online classes were starting to become more common, Nilsson told me when I met him at a coffee shop in Stockholm in June.

He was allowed to access his online classes and use university email while staff at the learning center looked over his shoulder. It’s a model that sounds similar to what is happening in Maine, where incarcerated students are allowed to engage in supervised online learning. As a result, students are able to enroll in regular degree programs at institutions like University of Maine and George Mason University.

Svartsjö is a minimum-security men’s prison on the outskirts of Stockholm, Sweden. Incarcerated students there can earn up to a high school diploma through the Swedish prison service’s network of learning centers. Photo: Charlotte West/Open Campus

Up until 2019, incarcerated individuals like Nilsson were allowed to enroll in regular university classes if they were accepted to the degree program. Some faculty were willing to make exceptions for requirements like attending lectures. But over the years, higher education institutions were less able to accommodate individual incarcerated students, Broo said. As colleges shifted more and more of their instruction online, it became nearly impossible for students to enroll without more direct internet access.

Because of security concerns, a staff member had to sit with the student and watch the screen the entire time that a student was online. In 2018, the prison service suspended all supervised online learning. “We don’t have the staff for that today,” Broo said, in light of the increasing prison population and the decision to concentrate resources on adult education.

Now, the only higher education that he’s aware is happening in Swedish prisons is if a professor is willing to do an independent study via snail mail, Nilsson said.

It’s a bit unclear why Swedish universities aren’t offering formal prison education programs despite the fact that some of them have a long history of teaching incarcerated students. Officials at the prison service have indicated they aren’t opposed to higher education opportunities if the logistics can be worked out. (In other words, it’s less of a political move — like when the U.S. banned Pell Grants for prisoners in the 1994 crime bill — and more of an administrative one.)

Nilsson is critical of Sweden’s shift. His experience of education inside served as a role model for others. “They are forgetting about the normative aspects of people being inspired by others who do positive things,” he said.

++ Related coverage: People in Finnish prisons are being hired to train artificial intelligence models for private companies, writes Morgan Meaker for WIRED. The company gets cheap, Finnish-speaking workers for $1.67 an hour, while the prison system can offer incarcerated people employment that, it says, prepares them for the digital world of work after their release.

Let’s connect

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.