Jan Strømnes, warden of the Norwegian maximum security Halden Prison, tours Attica.
This is a heartbreaking documentary in a lot of ways, but I think the real gut-punch comes at around the 35-minute mark, where Strømnes asks a group of Attica inmates to design an “ideal prison”, then present their ideas to both himself and their own wardens. The prison that the inmates describe seems not that dissimilar to Halden—it has the physical structure of a campus, it has trees and couches and doors, it has a focus on modern vocational and tertiary training—but the most soul-crushing shots are those showing the wardens’ responses to the inmates’ earnest and carefully constructed presentation. The American wardens sit back in their chairs, arms crossed and tight-lipped, while Strømnes leans forward, attentive, and takes notes. You get the impression he earnestly wants to learn from these men, incarcerated half a world away.
This is an entirely different attitude towards incarceration. It’s one that doesn’t focus on profit, or cost-benefit, or punishment, but on humanity, and the reaffirmation of that. It’s one that seems to recognize that the measure of civilization in a society is not how it treats those dearest to it, but those most reviled. And it’s one that holds onto hope; for redemption, or even just making someone’s life a tiny bit better, for a tiny bit of time, without any complex apologetics as to whether they’ve “earned it”. Because everyone has “earned it”, by virtue of being human.
And that’s admirable, I think. That humanity. I don’t think it’s always easy, but I think it’s always something worth striving for.