Criminal Justice

Opinion: Pennsylvania should make ‘Little Scandinavia’ at SCI Chester permanent

The pilot project represents a groundbreaking shift towards a more humane, rehabilitative prison system.

The ‘Little Scandinavia’ facility at SCI Chester

The ‘Little Scandinavia’ facility at SCI Chester Commonwealth Media Services

Pennsylvania has a unique opportunity to lead the nation by transforming its approach to incarceration. The “Little Scandinavia” pilot project at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Chester represents a groundbreaking shift towards a more humane, rehabilitative prison system. Inspired by the successful models prevalent in Scandinavian countries, where the focus is on rehabilitation rather than punishment, this program has begun to show promising results. It is time to not only make Little Scandinavia a permanent fixture at SCI Chester but also to expand this initiative to other correctional facilities across Pennsylvania.

Traditionally, the U.S. prison system has operated under a punitive model, emphasizing retribution over rehabilitation. This approach has led to overcrowded prisons, high costs to taxpayers and disturbingly high recidivism rates. In stark contrast, Scandinavian countries like Norway view incarceration through a lens of social service, where the primary goal is to prepare inmates for a successful reintegration into society. The results are telling, including significantly lower recidivism rates and more cohesive communities.

Little Scandinavia at SCI Chester has started to tread this progressive path by providing a more open, trust-based environment. Inmates have access to enhanced educational and vocational training programs, more personal freedom within the facility, and a strong emphasis on mental health and counseling services. These elements are crucial for true rehabilitation, addressing the root causes of criminal behavior and equipping inmates with the skills and mindset needed to lead productive lives post-release.

The preliminary feedback from both inmates and staff in the Little Scandinavia unit has been overwhelmingly positive. Participants report feeling more respected and valued, which fosters a sense of responsibility and a desire to improve. Corrections officers note a decrease in confrontations and an improvement in overall safety – benefits that can and should be replicated system-wide.

Critics may argue that expanding such a program requires substantial investment and that the leniency shown might undermine the punitive aspect of the justice system. However, these concerns overlook the long-term benefits and savings associated with lower recidivism. By investing in rehabilitation, we are reducing the likelihood that individuals will re-offend, thereby decreasing the future costs of incarceration and creating safer communities.

Moreover, the financial argument for expanding rehabilitative programs is compelling. Studies have shown that every dollar spent on educational programs for inmates yields significant returns in reduced incarceration costs. The RAND Corporation found that inmates who participate in correctional education programs have 43% lower odds of recidivating. The economic rationale is clear: It costs far less to educate and rehabilitate than to repeatedly process the same individuals through the criminal justice system.

Expanding Little Scandinavia also aligns with broader social and moral imperatives. The current punitive model disproportionately affects minority and low-income communities, exacerbating societal inequalities. A shift towards a more rehabilitative model represents a step towards rectifying these disparities, providing all individuals with a genuine opportunity to turn their lives around. This is not just good policy; it’s a reflection of our values as a society that believes in second chances and the potential for personal transformation.

To those who work daily in our penal system, the benefits of a rehabilitative approach are apparent not just in statistics but in the stories of individuals who have transformed their lives. Making Little Scandinavia permanent and initiating its expansion would send a powerful message that Pennsylvania is committed to justice that truly rehabilitates, restores and respects human dignity.

As we look to the future of criminal justice in Pennsylvania, let us choose a path that prioritizes effective rehabilitation over ineffective retribution. Let’s expand Little Scandinavia, not as an experiment, but as a commitment to a better, fairer and more effective system. By doing so, we will not only improve the lives of those incarcerated but also enhance the safety and well-being of our communities across the state.

State Rep. Ben Waxman is a Democrat who represents Center City and South Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Contact him at

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