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Scandi Prison Reform Comes to Chester, Pennsylvania. A $600k Nordic Coproduction Case Study

More than 100 million Americans, myself included, share the harrowing experience of being involved with a family member caught up in the nation’s notorious prison system.

American jails rely heavily on punishment versus rehabilitation.

But there are stories of hope.

Swedish filmmakers Tomas Lindh and John Stark just premiered on SVT their absorbing series that reveals how Pennsylvania’s Corrections Department bravely piloted a model Scandinavian prison reform program.

I’ve been cheering on their story since before Covid, and was delighted to see “Prison Project: Little Scandinavia” share the International Buyers Competition Award at MIPDOC ’23.

Here is their Case Study, based on interviews with the producers, and editorial assistance by Caitlin Cooper.

Trailer

 

Concept

  • What happens when a US prison implements elements of Scandinavian prison practices?
  • In Chester, PA, a prison facility is tasked to reimagine incarceration and the traditional ways in which prisons are run.
  • Prison Project: Little Scandinavia” is a three-episode documentary series for streaming & broadcast. A feature-length version is also in production.

Origin

Key Team Members

A still from “Little Scandinavia.” One of the cornerstones of the Scandinavian approach is that communication between staff and inmates should be relaxed and personal. (SVT)

First Pitch

  • “The first pitch was supported by a short trailer and a presentation about the research project that was about to begin. It was greenlit by Swedish broadcaster SVT in a matter of days. One of the easiest pitches of my life really!”
  • Every step of the way, the project has been received with a large degree of curiosity, and admiration of the access we were granted inside of the correctional facilities; that we could follow so closely and openly inside a US prison facility. The uniqueness of the project and the access we had have been the main selling points.”

Timeline

  • “From idea to finished series, roughly five years starting in May 2018.”
  • Summer 2019: staff from SCI Chester spend the summer in Scandinavia.
  • Spring 2020: the prison unit is ready to receive its first residents, a group of six men who will test the project out.
  • 2020-2021: Covid-19 puts the project on temporary hold.
  • 2022: the Little Scandinavia unit is re-opened after the pandemic and is fully functioning.
  • 2023: first results of staff and residents’ wellness are promising. Filming ends.
  • Editing started in December 2022, almost full-time up until April 2023.
Kevin, one of the six inmates who move into the Little Scandinavia unit. (SVT)

Field Production

  • “In total, we made seven trips to Philadelphia and SCI Chester. During the summer of 2019, we followed staff from the US while they were visiting and working at Scandinavian facilities.”
  • “A small group (4 people) did all the work in the field. A smaller group of people is a big bonus inside prisons, where you need to be extra mindful of the rules in place.”

Project Re-directions

  • “Up until Spring 2020, everything was going according to plan, albeit delayed, due to how difficult it was to modify the strict framework that is in place inside the Department of Corrections.”
  • “When the pandemic hit, we had to adjust our script and modify a lot. Covid-19 ended up being a part of the story. And because we left equipment for inmates and staff to film during the total lockdown, we were able to show how the unit and the project managed to survive this very strange period in history.”

About the Producers

  • John Stark (L) and Tomas Lindh (R) have been producing documentaries about prison reform for about 10 years.
  • Together they have developed and produced/directed more than ten major Nordic co-productions, many with strong cross-media elements and publishing plans for outreach. 
  • Previous notable work is “Breaking the Cycle” (2016) which was distributed worldwide by Netflix and other platforms.

Budget

  • Final estimate: $600,000 USD

Coproduction Partners

Delivery

  • Video: 4K
  • Audio: Atmos or 5.1 or stereo
  • Versions available: 1 x (approx.) 95 min, or 3 x 48 min / 3 x 58 min
The Chester, PA prison that was transformed into a “Little Scandinavia.” (Tomas Lindh)

Premiere

  • 25 April 2023 on Swedish national public television (SVT)

Distribution

Key Takeaways

  • Tomas:
    Seeing how the research project has sparked interest throughout the US prison system has been fantastic. The documentary and the research behind it have headlined some of the biggest criminal and sociology conferences in the world. Recently it was announced that the notorious San Quentin prison is looking to do something similar – so let’s see where this ends up. Other than being a very interesting documentary to watch, I hope it’ll inspire people to try new approaches in a system that needs new ideas”
  • Peter:
    Authenticity is king. I think this was confirmed at MIPDOC 2023, where this project shared the International Buyers Competition with “The Caravan” from Spain. Both of these deeply-researched projects stood out amongst the finalists for following tough, real-life stories with great empathy.”

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