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San José Artist Isiah Daniels on What California Can Learn From Norway's Prison System

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A small group of people stand outside a prison facility in Norway. They're facing a large gray wall which looks like concrete.
A group of California visitors, affiliated with the Uncuffed podcast — a show made by people in state prisons — heads into Halden Prison in Oslo, Norway, this month. (Courtesy of KALW)

A California bill, which will be heard in the state Senate’s Public Safety committee Tuesday, intends to take the state’s prisons in a more Norwegian direction.

"It’s almost as if you're part of a dorm, and you're working with other folks to help each other," said Stockton Assemblymember Carlos Villapudua, who’s proposing AB 2730, about what he's learned about prisons there.

The measure would create a jobs-training pilot program, preparing incarcerated folks for employment. Participants also would be housed in a communal setting — a version of Norway’s model.

Incarcerated Norwegians can move freely, wear their own clothes — rather than uniforms — and cook their own food.

"You're going to bed positive instead of going to bed behind bars," Villapudua said. "We need to get out of institutional life and make it more of a community and give those folks that have made a mistake in their lives, you know, give them a second chance, a third chance at life so they can be part of society again."

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The goal is to ultimately help reduce California’s high recidivism rate — which a 2019 state auditor's report estimated at an average of 50%. Meanwhile, Norway saw its recidivism rate drop from around 70% to 20% after significant reforms in the '90s.

Isiah Daniels, a San José visual artist, saw firsthand what prison life is like in Norway. He was formerly incarcerated at San Quentin and recently flew for the first time in decades, to visit Oslo as part of the first-ever international Prison Radio conference.

Daniels, who serves on the advisory board of the Uncuffed podcast, a show made by people in California prisons in partnership with Bay Area sister station KALW, talked about his experience with KQED morning host Brian Watt.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

BRIAN WATT: When you landed in Oslo, Norway, to do this tour, what was going through your mind?

ISIAH DANIELS: Initially, I was very nervous about just going back into a prison period, especially after spending 21 years in a prison myself. I've overcome a lot of things that didn't quite go my way or I didn't feel good about. Overcoming things is just a matter of saying, you got to do this.

Isiah Daniels, a member of the advisory board of KALW's Uncuffed podcast, speaks about his impressions of a visit to The Red Cross, a bike shop and reentry resource staffed by formerly incarcerated people. (Thanh Tran)

What did Halden Prison look like?

Nothing that I've seen before. When we pulled up to the exterior wall ... I didn't see any barbed wire. I didn't see guard towers. I didn't see anyone standing there with a gun in their hand.

And then we walked in and we walked through a metal detector — I'm ready to pull my shoes off and take my shirt. I'm used to going through metal detectors — but it was nothing like that. They barely checked us.

It reminded you of a setting in some movie where there's trees. There are sections laid out to where the guys can go and sit at a park bench. They can walk off into the woods and channel their thoughts.

As part of this visit, were you able to speak with incarcerated people or correctional officers?

Yes, we had a correctional officer, who was more of a guide than an officer. What she mainly did was get us from one point to another. What I was doing was walking out onto the yard, look around and see who was out there, and then mosey this way a little bit and just introduce myself.

What's a conversation that stands out to you?

I think the one that stood out the most to me was their perception of the guards. They called them friends. They called them help. One of them called him "little brother."

Wow. “Little brother” in Norwegian, I'm going to assume.

One guy was kind of interpreting something from the guy. He said they're just like family. He said, these guards, they care about me. They care about us. They care about our education. They care about our success. They even care about our families.

Most of the guys we talked to told us more about the United States than some of us even knew. Because what they do, they watch us and they question, why are we like this?

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You know, I seen a guy that's in prison and I said to him, you all have no space. He said, "Oh, it doesn't matter." He kind of bumped the guard with his elbow, and they started laughing. In California, you would have been in a headlock driven to the ground. He said, "No, it's not like that. Here we shake hands, we say goodbye."

Had it been like this system over here in Norway, I mean, I wonder how much better my life would have been.

This obviously sounds very nice and very ideal, but what did you hear about the challenges facing Norway's prisons?

So we went to a part of the prison where they actually have their family visits. This is where they bring men to teach them how to become fathers. They let the kids come in, the wives, and they learn to be fathers. [But] they closed it. That was one of the things that caught my attention.

So it's not as straightforward as it might appear when you go into a really nice facility.

Correct. It seems that there's a funding issue, but that does not stop [prison officials] from still being in the mindset of we don't have to torture these guys.

It seems like you would be the perfect person to answer this question because I know California is not the only state looking at Norway-style prison reform: Is this the way to go in the United States?

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We could have already done it. It's amazing how we can fly this far across the country to a place to look at a model of a prison system that we could have already done ourselves — if we wanted to. And I say “if we wanted to” because what it takes to get our prisons [to be] like their prisons, is people just doing it.

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