Waxman, prison-reform advocates push to make Scandinavian unit permanent fixture statewide

HARRISBURG, May 21 – Today, state Rep. Ben Waxman, D-Phila., was joined by multiple prison-reform advocates for a Capitol news conference to discuss State Correctional Institute Chester’s Scandinavian unit, also known as “Little Scandinavia.”

Little Scandinavia is a pilot project modeled after prisons in Scandinavia, where the core values are safety, transparency and innovation, with a focus on normality and reintegration into the community upon release. The unit provides a quiet environment where residents live in single-person cells with a shared kitchen surrounded by outdoor green space and plants.

Waxman spoke on the importance of permanently funding this unit so that it can become a fixture at state correctional facilities across Pennsylvania.

“It's time for a shift in how we handle corrections in PA. Little Scandinavia isn't just a program, it's a new horizon in rehabilitation and human rights. This model focuses on transformative care, not just incarceration. In the next state budget, I will strongly advocate for us to include funding that would make the Scandinavian Unit a permanent fixture in our state’s corrections system.”

Bryan Widenhouse, senior policy associate for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, stated his belief that Little Scandinavia can help lower the recidivism rate in Pennsylvania.

"For decades I sat in prison and listened to others talk about the drugs they would sell and the crimes they would commit after they were released. They didn't want to do this; it was the only prospect they had. We can change this, we can lower the recidivism rate, and we can move toward a system that actually works the way we need it to." 

Kevin Amir Bowman from the organization “Just Better Men” was formerly incarcerated in the Scandinavian unit before being exonerated after serving 30 years for a crime he didn’t commit. He discussed his experience of being incarcerated there.

“There’s no rehabilitation in prison. You just come to jail, you’re in there, they have little programs for you, but they’re more geared toward the system looking good, not rehabilitating the men and women. Little Scandinavia gives you access to everything needed to grow, change, learn and be re-integrated back into society.”

This unit is the result of a multi-year partnership with the Norwegian Correctional Service, the Swedish Prison and Probation Service, and the Danish Prison and Probation Service. In 2019, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections employees traveled to Norway, Sweden and Denmark to see for themselves how Scandinavian countries approach incarceration.  

Leigh Owens, education and advocacy director at PA Prison Society, said that Little Scandinavia exemplifies their mission.

“The Pennsylvania Prison Society was founded in 1787 by our nation’s founders out of the conviction that, “The obligations of benevolence are not canceled by the follies or crimes of our fellow creatures.” More than 235 years later, the Prison Society is the go-to ombudsman and advocate for incarcerated people in the Commonwealth servicing all 85 prisons and jails. We work to advance the health, safety and dignity of Pennsylvanians living in prison and their families.

“The unit known as Little Scandinavia inside of SCI Chester is a project that exemplifies the mission of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Treating incarcerated people with dignity and care reduces prison violence, promotes true rehabilitation and helps decrease recidivism. Little Scandinavia has already proven to be very promising and certainly worthy of  not only further investment but expansion as a step towards our vision for a better, more rehabilitative prison system.”

FAMM Deputy Director of State Policy Celeste Trusty wasn’t at today’s conference, but offered the following remarks stating how Little Scandinavia can benefit Pennsylvania:

“A truly balanced system of justice must foster an environment of support, respect and dignity, and not simply be about punishment. The Little Scandinavia Unit at SCI Chester provides an opportunity for incarcerated people and unit staff to experience a more holistic approach to corrections, which helps inspire a sense of community that spreads throughout the prison.

“Pennsylvania currently invests more than $3 billion of taxpayer money a year in corrections - certainly a larger portion of those resources should be allocated to support the permanence of the Little Scandinavia Unit and expanding this powerful model to all prisons across the Commonwealth. When we treat people with humanity, we get better outcomes overall.”

State Reps. Emily Kinkead, D-Allegheny, and Lisa Borowski, D-Delaware, gave remarks.

This news conference can be viewed in its entirety at (95) PRESS CONFERENCE: Funding for SCI Chester's Scandinavian Unit - YouTube.