Prisons as Welfare Institutions? Punishment and the Nordic Model

Handbook on prisons (2016). J. Bennett, Y. Jewkes and B. Crewe (eds). London: Routledge.

20 Pages Posted: 21 Apr 2016

Date Written: April 21, 2016


In the field of comparative penology, the Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – are frequently used as an exception to the general rule. As the story goes, these societies are somehow able to resist a current global move towards growing rates of imprisonment and tougher crime control policies. Nordic prisons are seen as beacons of humanity and decency in a world of ever-increasing penal populism. In a much-discussed two-part article, John Pratt described the Nordic societies as exhibiting a specifically Nordic penal culture, resulting in what he called Scandinavian or Nordic exceptionalism in the penal area; the exceptional qualities, according to Pratt, being consistently low rates of imprisonment and comparatively humane prison conditions.

The exceptionalism debate has, so far, too often revolved around the question of whether the Nordic prison systems really are or are not that exceptional. The discussion has often lacked the appropriate level of specificity. In this chapter, I hope to bring this discussion a step forward. It is my thesis that the Nordic systems may be exceptional in another sense: The fact that Nordic prisons and correctional systems are understood as integrated parts of the strong, inclusive and ambitious Nordic welfare states may set them apart from similar institutions and systems elsewhere. Although perhaps not a unique quality that can only be found in the Nordic prison systems and nowhere else, this is certainly not the case in many other jurisdictions, where punishment is regarded as a last resort alternative to, not a part of, the welfare system. My ambition is not to "solve" the question of exceptionalism once and for all, but to begin an exploration of this alternative framing of the exceptionalism thesis.

Keywords: Prison sociology, comparative penology, Scandinavian exceptionalism, welfare state prisons

Suggested Citation

Ugelvik, Thomas, Prisons as Welfare Institutions? Punishment and the Nordic Model (April 21, 2016). Handbook on prisons (2016). J. Bennett, Y. Jewkes and B. Crewe (eds). London: Routledge. , Available at SSRN:

Thomas Ugelvik (Contact Author)

University of Oslo ( email )

PO Box 6706 St Olavs plass
Oslo, N-0317


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