The Nordic carceral system

Examining Scandinavian penal exceptionalism


  • Brendan Humphreys University of Helsinki


Nordic, collective identity, penal exceptionalism, prison, social contract


Scandinavian (Nordic) penal exceptionalism is a well-established body of opinion within carceral studies. It means that, judged by international standards, the prison systems of the Nordic countries are considered exceptionally humane. This article asks to what extent is Nordic prison exceptionalism a valid proposition; is the prison estate of the Nordic countries reflective of their broader societies, and if so, how does this relate to the idea of a pan-Nordic identity? The core concepts examined are collective identity, social contract, and Nordic carceral philosophy. The sources used draw from the theoretical literature about Nordic society, the established body of literature on incarceration, and expert studies on the Nordic prison systems. Conclusions largely support the positive view of Nordic incarceration but point to significant challenges to the broader Nordic welfare model.