Studies from Prison

Studies from Prison

- in Feature story
Photo: Jonas Jacobson

Your fellow course member might be a murderer. In many of Sweden’s prisons, there are interns who study in places of higher education and in universities. But do they get a chance to use their knowledge once they are released?

I begin a correspondence with a man called Ricard Nilsson. He is also a journalist, and one of the most highly educated people I have ever met. Seven degrees. Over a thousand ECTS-points. Furthermore, he has written several novels. He has also murdered three people.

Ricard Nilsson is locked up in Kirsebergsanstalten, Malmö’s medium safety prison, a large yellow house about a kilometre from where I live. He and a few hundred other people are imprisoned there.

Interns of Swedish prisons differentiate themselves from the average person in a number of ways: Oftentimes, they have lower education, greater difficulties with concentration, and, more often, first names that end with the letter Y. Most of them lack any higher education.

I ask Ricard Nilsson if we could meet up. He writes back that he can agree to be interviewed.

It takes five security controls before I get to the visitors’ area in Kirsebergsanstalten. I have to wait there because Ricard Nilsson and I are not allowed to be in the corridor at the same time. It might seem a little bit hysterical, but I guess we are afraid. Afraid that if we move our eyes from an intern, he will push us down onto the functional style floor in the small visitors’ area and squeeze at our throats with his forearm before we have managed to press the button that calls for the prison guard.

Ricard Nilsson looks rather kind. He is wearing round glasses and smiles a lot. We talk about our favourite novels, and he helps me to elucidate whether the series Orange is the New Black is closer to the reality of a Swedish prison than the older, and much more brutal prison-series Oz. He says that it is.

“No one can withstand fighting with people every single day. I have been in the two places where the worst criminals are put, Kumla and Tidaholm, for more than ten years, so I am pretty well aware that seemingly small things can become big, and can cause fights, but it does not happen every day.”

Mostly, the days in prison are very similar. Wake-up call and door-opening at a quarter to seven. Breakfast in the common area outside the cells. After that, the interns march off to the daily activities: studies or working in the workshop. A break for lunch. Afternoon duty in the education centre or the workshop. An evening meal. At a quarter to seven in the evening, the interns are locked into their respective cells again. Then, many choose to read books, write letters, or watch TV. There is not that much else to do, really.

The prison cages separate isolated interns from others. Photo: Tor Gasslander
The prison cages separate isolated interns from others. Photo: Tor Gasslander

For those of the interns who study at a place of higher education or a university, just as Ricard Nilsson does, the education works just as a regular distance education. In the daytime, he sits in the education centre at Kirsebergsanstalten and reads the course literature.

Every week, he has 15 minutes of closely guarded time to go on the Internet, during which time he should hand in all tasks for that week, download new ones, and keep in touch with his tutor. If he ever diverts from the approved, study-related activities, he is suspended immediately and permanently.

Ricard Nilsson happened to be in the right prison at the right time when the first try-outs with higher education in the prison establishments started. In the fifteen years he has been imprisoned, Ricard Nilsson has studied Psychology, Criminology, and Law. Now, he is writing a Bachelor’s degree essay of Literary Studies. Nowadays, it is possible to take courses at university level in prisons all over the country.

To be able to study as an intern, it should be justified in the intern’s personal “plan for being imprisoned”: the document that dictates most of an intern’s life within the prison walls. And for it to be justified in an intern’s plan, there must be a point to studying. In other words, when it comes to higher education and interns, you are not allowed to study just to make time pass. I cannot help asking.

Does it lead to anything tangible?
“Actually, it does. I am a member of the Swedish Union of Journalists, I have become a writer and published a book, owing to, among other things, the fact that I have studied a course in creative writing. It has also resulted in the fact that I am able to pay debts to my crime victims with my income. Furthermore, my plan is to study for my Doctor’s degree, and to be as competitive as possible in relation to those on the outside, I have to study as much as I possibly can.”

Do you think that it affects the possibilities to adapt to society outside of prison?
“Yes, Sweden is a very academic society. Personally, I have every minus sign in front of me once I am released, so having multiple educations that I can apply is my greatest chance.”

In the 1900s, correctional treatment in Sweden has swung between punishment and treatment. Apart from the fact that everyone should be able to get an education corresponding to a municipal adult education, or a vocational training education, therapy is also offered. At Kirseberg, there is even a special ward where a few interns live and go through an intensive course that teaches them to handle their addictions.

The Swedish Prison and Probation Service has treatment as its main emphasis at present, but in spite of this emphasis, the single most important purpose of a prison is still to keep people locked up.

Ricard Nilsson looks down, then up, and then straight at me.

“Well, a lot of it is them thinking you should be locked up and the key thrown away. I think it is better that I do something with my time here, something that gives me a foundation to stand on, and which might lead to work, once I am released.”

People with previous convictions do not get to enter society just like that. In the latest years, it has become more and more common that employers demand a certificate of exemption from punishment. In June, an investigation conducted by the state produced a report about the increasing amount of extracts from people’s criminal records.

The report suggested that employers should not be allowed to demand to see someone’s criminal records, unless they had special reason to do so. Someone with previous convictions is precisely that, formerly convicted, a point made in the report by Michaël Koch, one of those conducting the investigation. Employers in schools and health-care are exempted, but other than that, a person’s previous convictions should remain private. As the system is now, it is discriminating the integrity of certain people, according to the report.

So far, the suggestion has not been transformed into a law. How the new government will handle the question is still unclear.

So, there is no legal obstacle to remembering the crimes of the convicted. And we remember them. Especially those that have become memorable. Ricard Nilsson made a name for himself in the evening papers when he was convicted. Back then, the articles concerned the rock manager who had tricked three people into coming to a lay-by. When they arrived at the scene, he shot all three of them dead when they were still in their car. Now, the articles are more often about the gaolbird who releases a book.

Ricard Nilsson has still not received a fixed term of imprisonment, and is counting on having to write from within the prison for a few more years. The last time he applied for unsupervised leave of absence, it was denied. It was denied, although he has behaved in an exemplary way in all his fifteen years of correctional treatment by the Swedish Prison and Probation Service. The National Board of Forensic Medicine are still of the opinion that Ricard Nilsson is manipulative. He cannot be trusted, and he cannot be left alone, they think.

Ricard Nilsson, who is imprisoned for a triple murder, has acquired over a thousand ECTS-points whilst in prison Photo: Tor Gasslander
Ricard Nilsson, who is imprisoned for a triple murder, has acquired over a thousand ECTS-points whilst in prison Photo: Tor Gasslander

The help organisation Criminals’ return into Society, Kris, in Malmö, helps me come into contact with Levi, who also studied when he was imprisoned. He is convicted of “very serious crimes,” but he was released about a year ago. Just as Ricard Nilsson, he has served his sentence in the toughest prisons in Sweden. Kumla, Tidaholm, and, finally, Kirseberg.

To start with, Levi was utterly uninterested in studying. A tough guy, closer to Oz than Orange is the New Black. He was going to serve his sentence, and then he was going to get out. Fuck this.

But, a while after Levi had been imprisoned, his younger brother died of an overdose. From the inside, Levi had not been able to do anything about it. And for him, just as for many interns before him, a tragedy became a dramatic turning-point.

The physical work in prison did not give him anything, but all interns must keep themselves occupied in the daytime. Treatment, physical work, or education on full-time basis. The work-strategy applies in prison as well.

Levi decided to use the time in prison to give something back. To society and to his deceased younger brother. He was permitted by the Swedish Prison and Probation Service to study Leisure Sciences and Psychology. It was something completely different in comparison to the monotonous work he had done in prison previously.

“It opened a bunch of new doors in my head,” he says.

Levi studied ten semesters, a whole education, before he was eventually released, last year. Levi says that he wants to work with helping teenagers who have gotten themselves into trouble, or with people who have addiction problems. The combination of Levi’s personal experiences with crime and drugs, and the long education makes him especially suited for things like that, he thinks.

“I was sublimely happy when I was released from prison. Like a sunbeam. Every day.”

It went well. In contrast to many other convicts, he is free from debts, has money in the bank, and a flat. The results are not that good for everyone.

Even if both work and studies in prison are salaried, many still have huge debts to crime victims, when they are released.

“98-99 prisoners out of 100 do not even have a quid when they get out. These guys are released with a plastic bag and some 50 pounds,” Levi says.

When a former intern starts over in the real society, an education should be the first and the most important link to a life without crime.

Almost every day, Levi goes to Kris to speak, shake hands, and help with what is needed. Several times when I call, he is somewhere doing something, and does not have time to talk.

Levi just wants to help people to avoid dying like his brother did. But no one seems to want Levi to work with such things. Nor with anything else, for that matter.

“It is a slammed door in the face, when you are a previous offender. In some places, they tell you that ‘you can get a placement here, but you cannot work alone, and you cannot work the night shift’. As if I would transform into a beast when darkness falls.”

That is why I call Lena Broo who is chief of client education at the Swedish Prison and Probation Service. There are about 4,200 people who study in Swedish prisons. Only a small part of those study something at a higher level. About half of all interns do not even have a high school diploma.

The last time Lena Broo checked, about 35 people studied at a place of higher education or at a university. The institution did not have room for more people in their education centre.

The number of interns that have been approved for studies has decreased significantly in the last couple of years. Most of the physical places to study in the prisons are taken up by those wanting to study for their compulsory education-schooling, or high school diploma. They are to be prioritised, according to the guidelines of the Swedish Prison and Probation Service. Today, at Kirseberg, there are three people in total studying at a higher level.

“It is always hard saying no to someone who wants to study. And if we could choose ourselves, everyone who wanted would be allowed to pursue their studies.”

Will it ever happen that every single intern in Swedish prisons pursue their studies?
“I wonder whether we can reach as far as everyone taking that step. It is a vision, of course. It would be brilliant if that was the case.”

What kind of effect education has, apart from people learning things, is hard to say. The Swedish Prison and Probation Service are not checking. It would be rather sensitive keeping a record of former convicts, and voluntary surveys are both hard to get answers to and precarious as statistical sources.

Not even The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brottsförebyggande rådet, Brå) knows for certain if providing education for interns decreases crime figures. But Lena Broo is certain that education has an effect.

“I am convinced that it has an effect, and a positive one at that.”

When I ask how she knows this, she says that there actually is limited research in the field, for the very same reason why the Swedish Prison and Probation Service does not have any statistics, but that studies conducted internationally show good indications. The risk of a relapse into criminality, in the best case scenario, decreases by as much as 30 percent after having finished one’s education.

In the ward there is a football field as well as a gym. Photo: Tor Gasslander
In the ward there is a football field as well as a gym. Photo: Tor Gasslander

Ricard Nilsson is still looking forward to being released. He will work as a journalist and a writer, and he is quite sure that it will be fine.

He has already been promised a work-place at Paragraf, a magazine that concerns correctional treatment, where he writes annals today. He mentions that the fact that he writes books and annals seems to grate people less than the fact that he is studying. As if his studies only were a way to exploit the resources of the state.

But just as Levi, Ricard Nilsson’s studies do not really bear the stamp of getting revenge on society, but instead that of reimbursement. It is about doing one’s share.

“A big part of my income goes to paying my crime victims, that is what feels best, I guess. It is the privilege of the few in here to pay one’s way,” he says.

For Levi at Kris, it did not turn out quite as good. For him, the crime conviction has continued to be a punishment, even after he was released from the institution. He is not like a sunbeam every day anymore.

“I am not sick of it all, I am absolutely furious. I have done my time. I sure as hell should not continue being punished.”

Levi is neither interested in awaiting a new law proposal, or a change in public spirit. He will sell his flat and move to Spain. A friend of his who lives there tells him that it is easier to get by as a former convict there.

“In any case, it cannot be any worse. Here, you are treated like the plague.”


*Ricard Nilsson has previously applied for having his debts to his crime victims written off.

Text & Photo: Tor Gasslander
Translation: Richard Helander

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