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Pennsylvania lawmakers call for permanent funding, expansion of Scandinavian model of prisons

FILE PHOTO: In this Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 file photo, an inmate and artist named Ezra poses for a portrait at the State Correctional Institution in Chester, Pa.
Matt Rourke
FILE PHOTO: In this Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 file photo, an inmate and artist named Ezra poses for a portrait at the State Correctional Institution in Chester, Pa.

Kevin Amir Bowman, spent 34 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

In 1989, he was charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault, conspiracy, and weapons violations. The state granted him a new trial in 2023, and the charges against him were later dismissed.

He spent his latter years incarcerated in a special unit of SCI Chester known as Little Scandinavia before his exoneration.

Little Scandinavia houses 64 inmates and gives prisoners more independence, allowing them to do things such as make their own meals. It focuses on rehabilitation over punishment.

Bowman is now the founder and CEO of the nonprofit “Just Better Men,” which works with young men and women facing adversity. He said the approach used at SCI Chester was transformative.

“The difference in Little Scandinavia, you’re interacting,” he said. “You’re sitting and you’re eating with these people. You’re playing sports with them. You’re talking about, life matters and things that go on in your life, as well as theirs. That’s that interaction you need to go back into society. To be a better person. To change.”

Now, state lawmakers are trying to secure permanent funding for the unit. The push is being led by Rep. Ben Waxman, D-Philadelphia, who said the model can better prepare prisoners to return to the outside world.

“The focus is on rehabilitation and the focus is on the realization that people who are incarcerated will return to our society and therefore that the focus must be on making sure that they are turning in a way that has them be productive members of society,” he said.

Inmates are chosen through a lottery system. No reported instances of violence has been associated with the program, even though prisoners have access to cooking equipment such as knives.

Bowman was critical of other prison programs, saying they could lead to people being incarcerated again because they don’t help inmates develop new skills.

“You’re basically putting someone in prison, whether they committed the crime or they did commit the crime,” he said. “You’re not giving them the tools to change and you’re bringing these same individuals back into society. And they’re angry. They don’t have no skills to make any money to live a life.”

He said in prison he learned how to use a cell phone and how to go to a supermarket and use coupons.

Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Allegheny, said the program model also benefits corrections officers.

“We have seen the quality of life for the corrections officers on this unit also dramatically improve the corrections officers that I spoke to on this unit,” she said. “We’re talking about how they actually look forward to going to work. They enjoy the work that they do. They enjoy being able to have a relationship with the inmates on this unit and working together, collaborating together and making a difference together.”

Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Beaver, co-chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said she “absolutely and wholeheartedly” agrees with the Democrats’ proposal.