Ingeborg van Teeseling

Prisoners of Our Experience: How We View Criminals Shapes Our Nation

(Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash)

As America has viscerally demonstrated, if society treats prisoners like a problem, it creates far greater ones.


In Australia, 0.8 people per 100,000 are murdered. In 2017, that amounted to 203 people. In New Zealand, the number is 0.7. In Norway, it is 0.5. In the United States, on the other hand, it is 5.3. With that number, it joins the likes of Sudan, Zambia, Burundi, Cuba, and Argentina. It can get worse, of course, but then you are in Papua New Guinea, Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador, or Afghanistan.

A few weeks ago, here in Australia, I spent some days sick on the sofa, drowsily watching daytime television. There are a lot of police reality series on at that time of day and what I saw made me look up those stats I’ve just given you.

The first show was Beach Cops, which follows some police officers on the Northern Beaches, from Palm Beach to Manly. Although their clientele is sometimes aggressive, drunk, or on ice, they are usually relaxed, even caring. They talk to people and they are not afraid to show emotions, explaining how difficult it can be to tell a family that somebody has died, for instance. There is no yanking people out of cars, hardly any handcuffs, and I haven’t seen them hit anybody yet.

Yes, I hear you say, but those shows are closely monitored and made by the PR departments of the police itself. Yeah, I get that, but that is the same all over the world, which is why we can compare them. What we see is what they want to show. So: Beach Cops: “You right, mate?”

Murder Rate: 0.8.

Then there is Police Ten 7, the New Zealand version. This seems to be made by would-be comedians. It is very jokey. When the coppers meet a drunk, naked guy on an Auckland street on Saturday evening, they ask him if he wants to say hi to his mum. That kind of stuff. There is a little bit more strictness here, but mostly the lines are: “I’m counselling you to calm down” and “Don’t swear at me, I’m making sure you are okay.”

Murder Rate: 0.7.

Now we come to the big one, the one that has run for more than 1,000 episodes in 33 seasons. The one that has an audience of between two and five million. In the United States alone. I’m talking about Copsof course. “Bad boys, bad boys, watcha gonna do?”

We’re not in Kansas anymore, that is clear. Or maybe we are, but, man, does this world look different from the ones in Australia and New Zealand.

These policemen (mostly white) treat their charges (mostly black) as the enemy, guilty always, a lesser kind of person. They are, obviously, the saviors of the world, moral Supermen, never wrong. The “frontline guardians of law and order, unflinching heroes conquering the forces of depravity,” as a story on the history of Cops recently described them.



There is a lot of violence here, most of it coming from the Police itself. Pulling people out of cars, ramming them on the hood, handcuffs, guns drawn, yelling and screaming. The abuse is of the Trump-variety: “cried like a baby, died like a dog.” It is disrespectful, it never asks questions, it presumes guilt, and, of course, it is as racist as it gets.

A few years ago, researchers asked people who watched the show Cops what they had learned from it. Turns out, viewers believe that crime happens far more than it really does, that it is mainly perpetrated by poor black people, that they themselves are more likely to become a victim than they are (especially if they are white), and that police are better at catching the real bad guys than they are.

In 2013, a group called Color of Change started a campaign to persuade Fox to take the show off the air. After an intensive grassroots campaign and influenced by Black Lives Matter, Fox did exactly that. “25 years of racist myth-making has come to an end,” Color of Change boasted. But they were wrong.

Five minutes later, the show was sold to Spike (now Paramount Television), where it still runs and hasn’t changed a jot. Apart from being more of what it was before: violent, racist, with a disdain for poor people and women.

Murder Rate: 5.3.

What is going on here? People are the same everywhere, right? And yet, in the United States, 6.6 times as many people die every year from murder than in Australia. In Norway (remember: 0.5), it is even 10.6 times.

For the answer, I briefly have to go back to the book I have been boring you with for the last few months, the one about nice people, by Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History. In it, he compares the justice system in the United States and Norway, and the result should make us all think.

In Norway, most prisons are based on the premise of “dynamic security.” The idea is that if you treat prisoners well, they will come out much better than if you treat them like dirt.

As one of the wardens says in Bregman’s book, “We are raising your new neighbors here. Would you prefer them to be ticking time bombs?”

So, in prisons like Bastoy and Halden, there are few locks. There are music studios producing records on the label Criminal Records, a climbing wall, a library, a cinema, a church, a supermarket.

The prisoners run their own community, so, they have to sow seeds, chop wood, cook, harvest, recycle. And some of them have jobs in the real world. Bastoy has the Bastoy Blues Band, that has played as the support act for ZZ Top.

Prison guards eat with the prisoners, they talk to them, have a joke.


Police stations now had to make a quota: the more arrests, the better. As long as it was for small stuff: dancing in the street, talking on the corner, rolling a joint.


Their job is to normalize life for their charges and teach them about their future. And it seems to work: 40% of ex-prisoners get a good job after they leave the prison, and recidivism rates are about 20%.

It costs more money to run these institutions, of course. Almost twice as much as in the United States. But it saves the Norwegian criminal system lots too because criminals don’t re-offend as much, more find a job, and there are fewer who need support afterwards.

Then, there’s the United States.

In 1982, a scientist who believed in what Bregman calls “the varnish theory,” the idea that people are violent animals under a varnish of pretend morality, presented the New York Police Department with a new idea. He called it “Broken Windows,” and, on first glance, it sounded lovely. Whenever something small goes wrong, like a broken window, you have to fix it straight away, he said. If you do that, that sets the tone for what you want your society to look like: shiny, responsible, in control.

Throughout the 1980s, this is how New York, and in its slipstream also other American cities, started to behave: graffiti was cleaned the same day, beggars were picked up, if people peed in public places they were put behind bars.

Then, in the 1990s, the system was broadened, to fare dodgers, amongst others, who were put in handcuffs and lined up on the platform, shamed in front of their fellow travelers. There were five times as many arrests as in the early 1980s.

Then, in 1994, William Bratton became head of police in New York. He completely went crazy: making a joke to a cop could land you in jail. And it seemed to work, the stats said. Crime rates dropped and his men and women in blue proudly called themselves Brattonistas.

At the same time, Bratton started to cook the books. Police stations now had to make a quota: the more arrests, the better. As long as it was for small stuff: dancing in the street, talking on the corner, rolling a joint.

Those found their way into the statistics, but really serious crimes did not. Victims were “persuaded” to refrain from pressing charges, and some cases just disappeared. Real criminals were walking free, but the numbers looked impressive.

In the police academy, cops were now schooled to think of the general public as potential criminals and praised when they behaved like assholes. Obviously, complaints about police mistreatment went up, leading to what we now know as Black Lives Matter.

The question is, though, did it work? No, it didn’t.

Between 1972 and 2007 the population of prisoners in the United States grew by 500 percent. They are in jail for an average of 63 months, seven times as long as Norway. A quarter of all prisoners in the world is behind American bars. And the recidivism rate is 60%.

So, on the one hand, you have a system that treats people as potentially good. On the other, one that believes they are all potential criminals and that morality is only a varnish on a violent animal.

Interesting, isn’t it?!


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.