Behind Bars: A Comparative Analysis of the Development of Prison Systems in the United States, Venezuela, and Norway

Blog by Remi O’Shaughnessy, Junior Associate

For most of its history, criminal punishment in the United States was milder than punishment in continental Europe and was therefore thought to be more humane, more enlightened, and more democratic than Europe.[1] However, something began to change. America began to adopt more and more severe criminal penalties as Europe adopted more and more mild ones. [2] While a divide began to grow between the approaches of these two continents’ penal system,[3] one continent began to fall behind: South America. South American prisons have toughened their criminal justice system and increased penalties.[4]

The federal prison system was established in 1891 through the Three Prisons Act.[5] This Act authorized the first three federal penitentiaries: USP Leavenworth, USP Atlanta and USP McNeil Island.[6] After nearly 40 years, Congress established the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) through Pub. L. No. 71-218, 46 Stat. 325 on May 14, 1930.[7] This statute laid out the foundations of the new Bureau and the basic guidelines for what the BOP was to provide. The Bureau of Prisons is in charge of the management and regulation of all Federal penal and correctional institutions and is responsible for all the safe-keeping, care, protection, instruction, and discipline of all persons charged with or convicted of offenses against the United States.[8] It is also the duty of the BOP to provide suitable quarters for the safe-keeping, care, and subsistence of all persons convicted of offenses against the United States, charged with offenses against the United States, or held as a witness or otherwise.[9] As a result of this, the BOP assumed the responsibilities of oversight, management and administration of all operational federal prisons at that time.[10]

As a result of the growth of the Bureau, the amount of federal prisons and federal inmates continued to increase.[11] In the 1980s an extensive amount of legislation regulating sentencing was passed that greatly altered the system and increased the number of federal inmates to almost double by the 1990s.[12] By the end of the decade, the Bureau was operating 95 institutions.[13] Since the 1990s both the prison population and number of federal prisons under BOP’s control has continued to increase.[14] All of this has led to the increase of issues that our federal prison systems are now facing, and has led to the decline of prison quality, prisoner treatment and punishment, and prison programs. 

The first Venezuelan penal code was issued in 1863 after the country gained independence from Spain.[15] Like many other Latin American countries, Venezuela’s codes have been strongly influenced by foreign legislation.[16] The 1863 penal code later developed into the Código de Enjuiciamiento Criminal of 1926. This code was established by the dictator Juan Vicente Gómez, and represented a substantial change from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century criminal procedure rules.[17] Another reform came in 1998 with the replacement of the 1926 code.[18] This reform made drastic changes to criminal procedure; it now gave defendants the immediate right to a lawyer upon arrest; the indictment procedure was now in the hands of the prosecutor; suspects had to be charged within 24 hours; and jurors would now be used to adjudicate more serious crimes.[19] Following this major reform, the Venezuelan government continued to make changes. Additional reforms came in March 2000 and November 2001, which left very little of the 1998 code.[20]

With reforms to criminal procedure, came attempted reforms to the prisons. The Venezuelan prison system has long suffered from a cycle that has been resistant to reform efforts.[21] The prison system is under the authority of the Ministry of Justice[22] which is responsible for the funding, conditions, and the treatment of prisoners.[23] While the Ministry of Justice is responsible for the state of the prisons, much impact has come from crime epidemics and public pressure.[24]

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, declining incomes and deteriorating living conditions led to an explosion in the crime rate.[25] As a result, the number of inmates drastically increased and caused dangerous overcrowding.[26] Due to this situation, in 1996, the prison system’s defects drew international scrutiny, as delegations from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the European Parliament, Human Rights Watch/Americas and Amnesty International urged the government to institute reforms.[27] The Ministry of Justice has attempted to address these issues through reforms; however, state governments have largely failed to contribute to the reforms.[28]

The issues of overcrowding, lack of funding, and overall poor conditions, continue to plague the Venezuelan prison system and have created a profound crisis in the judicial system.[29] Venezuelan prisons have never been pleasant, but the conditions have been worsened by a violent crime wave.[30] With growing issues and the continued decline of the prison system, the current system is suffering and is unable to develop into a well-organized system that can provide the prisoners with basic human needs.

The Norwegian criminal justice system has deep roots in the nation’s history.[31] The first formal penal code was enacted in 1814 through Article 94.[32] As Norway developed, the 1814 penal code was replaced in 1902 with the General Civil Penal Code.[33] However, this was later repealed and replaced by the Norwegian Penal Code of 2005, also known as Act No. 28 of May 20, 2005.[34] As the Penal Code developed, so did the Norwegian prison system.

Prior to the 1990s, Norway had a punitive justice system which led to criticism regarding the harsh living conditions in its prisons.[35] This system began to face social backlash that eventually led to the prison movement during the late 1960s.[36] This movement created a new outlook on the penal system and created a shift from retribution to rehabilitation.[37] On May 21, 1999, The Norwegian Ministry of Justice passed the Act Relating to the Strengthening of the Status of Human Rights in Norwegian Law (The Human Rights Act).[38] This provided the conditions that all persons must be treated with, if facing the prison system:


  1. All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.
  2. The penitentiary system shall compromise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation.[39]


This reassessment changed the Norwegian Ministry of Justice’s goals of the correctional system and emphasized the importance of introducing programs that would promote the rehabilitation of prisoners.[40] A second wave of major reform came in 2007, when the court began to emphasize new policies on helping inmates find housing and jobs after their release.[41] This was the start of major reform that would lead the Norwegian prison system to become what it is today.[42]

[1] Joshua Kleinfeld, Two Cultures of Punishment, 68 Sᴛᴀɴ. L. Rᴇᴠ. 933 (2016).

[2] Id. at 937.

[3] Id.

[4] Aarón Sánchez, The crossroads of penitentiary policies in Latin America, Lᴀᴛɪɴᴏᴀᴍᴇʀɪᴄᴀ21 (July 22, 2023),

[5] Fᴇᴅ. Bᴜʀᴇᴀᴜ ᴏғ Pʀɪsᴏɴ, A Storied Past, (last visited Nov. 15, 2023).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Pub. L. No. 218 §2, 46 Stat. 325 (1930).

[9] Id. at §3.

[10] Fᴇᴅ. Bᴜʀᴇᴀᴜ ᴏғ Pʀɪsᴏɴ, supra note 5.

[11] Id. (discussing how by the end of the 1930s the agency operated 14 facilities for just over 13,000 inmates and this continued to grow throughout the 1940s and held a steady number until the 1980s).

[12] Id. (describing legislation such as The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 that established determinate sentencing, abolished parole, and reduced good time; additionally, several mandatory minimum sentencing provisions were enacted in 1986, 1988, and 1990).

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Luis Salas, World Factbook of Criminal Justice Systems: Venezuela, 2, (June 1993)

[16] Id.

[17] Carmen Alguíndigue and Rogelio Pérez Perdomo, The Inquisitor Strikes Back: Obstacles to the Reform of Criminal Procedure, 15 SW. J. Iɴᴛ’ʟ L. 101 (2008).

[18] Id.

[19] Id at 104.

[20] Id at 105.

[21] David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz, Venezuela’s Prisons and the Search for Reform, Vᴇɴᴇᴢᴜᴇʟᴀ Pᴏʟ. ᴀɴᴅ Hᴜᴍᴀɴ Rᴛs. (Jul. 26, 2012),

[22] Punishment Before Trial: Prison Conditions in Venezuela, Hᴜᴍ. Rᴛs. Wᴀᴛᴄʜ (Mar. 1, 1997, 2017) (last visited Nov. 19, 2023).

[23] Id.

[24] Id. at 2.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at 5.

[27] Id. at 4.

[28] Hᴜᴍ. Rᴛs. Wᴀᴛᴄʜ, (last visited Nov. 19, 2023).

[29] See Ioan Grillo and Jorge Benezra, Inside the Hell of Venezuelan Police Prisons, Tɪᴍᴇ (June 8, 2016),

[30] Id.

[31] Lee Bygrave, World Factbook of Criminal Justice Systems: Norway, 2, (June 1993) (describing the history of the development of the Norwegian legal system from the establishment of the Althing over 1,000 years ago to the development of the Lagting, a more formal body with legislative, judicial, and executive powers, which emerged in the 10th century, to the creation of Norway’s Constitution in 1814).

[32] Id.

[33] Bygrave, supra, note 31, at 3.

[34] Ordinary Civil Penal Code (Criminal Code), Lᴏᴠᴅᴀᴛᴀ,*#* (last visited Nov. 19, 2023).

[35] Madelyn Evans, Restoration and Retribution: A Tale of Two Criminal Justice Systems, Tʜᴇ MᴄGɪʟʟ Iɴᴛ’ʟ Rᴇᴠ. (Jul. 16, 2020)

[36] Id. (discussing the movement that developed across the Scandinavian region that eventually led to the abolishment for forced labor systems and the juvenile detention centers).

[37] Id.

[38] Lov om styrking av menneskerettighetenes stilling i norsk rett (menneskerettsloven) [Act Relating to the Strengthening of the Status of Human Rights in Norwegian Law (The Human Rights Act)], Lᴏᴠᴅᴀᴛᴀ,*#* (last visited Nov. 19, 2023).

[39] Id. § 3, Art. 10.

[40] See Evans, supra note 35 (listing the programs emphasized in the reassessment, including education, job training, and therapy for prisoners).

[41] Id.

[42] See id.

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