In this deeply divisive post-election moment, I have been thinking about ways that we can re-humanize one another through stories. In October, I played in a Swedish men’s prison outside of Stockholm, and reflect here on the humanizing world I experienced inside those walls.
“Björne,” the warden, picks us up from the train station in a Swedish suburb. He shuttles us inside the prison walls, and into a light-filled residential facility where the inmates are already seated and waiting. We play Nashville style, in-the-round, three songwriters from the U.S., Denmark and Sweden. There are guards in the room, but no guns. Afterwards, the inmates perform for us. An older man in his mid-fifties, heavy set, bald and with tattoos on his forearms, gets up and feelingly performs Elvis and Johnny Cash covers, singing in thick, Swedish-inflected English. Then Bjorn[i], a quiet, thin man in his thirties with red hair, comes up and sings an original song, a song about incarceration and the feeling of being smothered by the walls that surround him. It’s beautiful, and, it turns out, it’s one of eighty songs Bjorn has written and recorded since coming to Mariefred’s Men’s Prison, thanks to an active songwriting curriculum, guitar lessons, and a state-of-the-art recording studio located on the prison grounds. Each show we then play (a total of three) is followed by “fika” (Swedish for a coffee break with pastries), where prison guards walk around the room, pouring coffee and offering cream and sugar to us and also to the inmates.
By the end of the day, we have had four fikas, have eaten chicken piccata with homemade onion soup as an aperitif (the prisoners eat the same meal), and have played for 85 inmates over the course of six hours (The largest prison in all of Sweden is 220 people, the smallest 110). We met men from Romania, Bosnia, Italy, Spain, Russia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and of course Sweden.
Here are some facts about Swedish prisons: Out of a total population of 10 million, there are only 4500 prisoners in Sweden, and this number is on the decline (they recently closed one prison due to under-use). Prison guards undergo a minimum of five months of training, and guards are each assigned an inmate to mentor and are responsible for their growth and rehabilitation while incarcerated. This ensures that, by the time they are released, prisoners have already been receiving transitional counseling and art therapies to help them re-integrate into society upon their release. None of the 110 employees (the same number as the prisoners) at this Men’s Prison carry a fire-arm. There are no snipers or guard towers, and while all guards carry pepper spray, only those with special training can carry a taser.
Perhaps the most powerful thing we witnessed was the larger belief not only in the ability to rehabilitate criminals, but the fundamental role of the arts in that rehabilitation. Looking at the week’s posted schedule, there were classes offered in yoga, poetry, singing, recording, monthly featured performers and state-of-the-art plays directed by a professional director now in his eighties.
While Mariefred may be the shining example in some respects (the Warden is himself a musician), belief in rehabilitation is the bedrock of the Swedish prison system. “We are with the prisoners, not above them or against them,” Lelle said to us over our final course of the day, delicious Apple cake with creamy vanilla sauce (äppelkaka med vaniljsås). As the director of the Swedish prison system, Nils Öberg, told The Guardian “Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: They have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us" (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/nov/26/prison-sweden-not-punishment-nils-oberg; italics mine).
It’s Swedish apple season, now and, as we prepare to leave, Lelle presents us each with our own variety of apple, picked from his yard that morning. “Even if you don’t know it now,” he tells us, “the men felt something during your songs. Even if you don’t know it, I know it, because I saw it. And that’s enough.”
[i] All names have been changed to protect the privacy of those incarcerated and of those working at the prison.