I was visiting prisons in Norway, but I kept thinking about Mr. G back home.
By 2018, I’d been working in “segregation” units for more than a
decade, having come to corrections after working security in a hospital,
managing aggressive behavior in the E.R. At the Oregon State
Penitentiary in Salem, I worked with people who had to be isolated from
the rest of the population because they posed a serious management
concern. Many had a mental illness. I thought there wasn’t anything I
At the time, Mr. G was probably our biggest challenge. He was in prison for assault and ‘aggravated’ harassment
and he had been diagnosed with severe mental illness. He told us that
he’d been a productive member of society until a psychological break in
his 30s. He would smear feces all over his cell. He would hit his
forehead against the wall until it opened up, and then keep aggravating
the wound; for much of 2016 and 2017, the wound never closed. He would
yell all day and night, until he was hoarse, all about raping people,
killing people, killing the president. He didn’t have voices in his
head, but he had poor impulse control: if his mind suggested he do
something aggressive, he would just do it.
It boiled down to control. He was punishing the staff, because when
he’d hurt himself we’d need to take him out of his cell and take him to
medical. He was so restricted that this was one of his only ways of
expressing frustration. If we’d come to the front of his cell when he
was screaming, he would stop and apologize, and we would write if
off—‘It’s just Mr. G being Mr. G’—and move on to help someone else. But
then he’d start up again.
Because of this behavior, he was rarely let out of his cell. He would
lose his daily privileges, meaning he only really got out for rec for
about two hours a week, for showers, and whenever a trained team had to
go in and clean up the feces in his cell.
He was trapped in a cycle. We were trapped in a cycle. In Norway, I realized how much I had to learn.
Our agency is working with Amend, an American organization that exposes correctional officers here to the way they do things in Europe.
In the Fall of 2018, we traveled to a number of prisons in Norway,
shadowing people with jobs similar to our own. We slept at the homes of
Norwegian officers and shared meals with them.
Some of the prisons looked extremely different from our own—more like
college campuses, with lots of trees and stores and libraries—but I
felt more familiarity at Ila Detention and Security Prison, outside
Oslo, which houses a population similar to our own behavioral health
unit. They told us they break the cycle of aggressive behavior and
isolation by treating every day as an opportunity to start over and meet
the men where they’re at. The day before, you’ve exhausted every method
of making their day better, but the next morning, you start over,
asking yourself: What can we do to give that person a better day?
They were very into having conversations without any physical
barrier. In our own prisons, when we talk to a prisoner in their cell,
we are on the other side of metal bars. In Norway, they just have doors,
and they open them and stand in the doorway, and they believed this
would lead to a more normal, human conversation.
While in Norway, seeing these spic and span prisons, sometimes I would think, Surely they don’t have the same issues, surely they don’t have guys smearing feces around the cells and attacking officers.
So I decided to test them. I volunteered to play the role of a
prisoner, and when a Norwegian officer tried to talk to me I charged at
him. He was well trained, and pinned me down to the floor. “Are you done
now?” he asked. “Can we stand up?” It wasn’t what he said, but how he
said it: He was so calm.
Some things we couldn’t bring over, like the staffing ratios. They
told us that throughout the country, they have roughly one staff member
for each person incarcerated, while here in Oregon we have roughly 4,400
staff for a population of 14,800. But we felt we could learn from how
they talked, how they treated each day as a new day.
When we returned, and spent more time training with Amend, we kept talking about Mr. G in particular: If we can help him, we thought, we can help anyone.
We had a recreational cell that had been repainted with a tropical
theme, full of waterfalls and birds and a beach scene. (One of our
bosses was Hawaiian and said the most relaxing environment he could
think of was a beach.) We put Mr. G in belly restraints, with his wrists
at his waist, and escorted him to the room. He was in awe at all the
colors, and he started talking up a storm. We chatted with him, asking,
have you ever seen a beach? Where did you used to go on vacation? We’d
never had these conversations before: we were so busy managing the
behavior that we weren’t thinking as much about the person. He told us
he was an artist, and that he liked to draw and paint.
We took off his wrist restraints and gave him pen and paper. He drew
up a storm: faces of clowns, of Yoda. We debriefed and we thought, What
if the smearing feces is something we could connect to something more
Then we thought, What if we repaint his cell with chalkboard paint?
Now, he covers everything with art. He draws a lot of rabbits. He does watercolors of flowers with his counselor.
He also told us he used to play in a band. There was a guitar in the
unit, and we’d never felt comfortable giving it to him before because we
were afraid of what he’d do with the materials, but he just immediately
launched into “Jailhouse Blues.”
He’s getting out of his cell a lot more, going to art class and movie
class, where prisoners use movies to discuss conflict resolution. We’ll
just put him in a room before or after a meal, with a pen and paper. It
sounds so simple, but it slows his mind down, and helps him avoid
aggressive, impulsive behavior. He stopped smearing feces for months at a time.
And we’ve taken this approach to the rest of the unit. We don’t have
enough staff to take people to the tropical room all the time, but
correctional officers will give up their breaks and lunches to take guys
there, knowing it will give them a better day.
Amend, the organization working with the prison on this new approach,
conducted an interview with my wife. She said I’d done a 180 socially,
reacting more thoughtfully to tense situations. She says I “Norway our
children,” responding in a calm way when our 5-year-old is acting out.
Hearing her speak, I got goosebumps. I thought I was so good at being a
dad, at being an officer. But going to Norway helped me be a better
Toby Tooley is a correctional captain at Oregon State
Penitentiary in Salem, Oregon. He supervises the state’s death row, the
prison’s disciplinary segregation unit and three independent
mental-health housing units.