The razor-edged concertina wire sparkling in the faint winter sun bears witness to a harsher climate at Norrtaelje prison.

A decade ago, the fence wasn't needed, even at this high-security brick compound holding convicted murderers and rapists.

But a string of escapes and uprisings among the 200 inmates in the mid-1990s resulted in extra security inside the nine-foot-high prison wall, and a riot squad stays on 24-hour alert.

"Before '95, '96, there were seldom fights between inmates," said Anders Ekstroem, the deputy warden. "Since then there have been a lot of trips to the hospital."

It's a distasteful turn for Sweden, which like the other Nordic nations has long championed a humane approach to dealing with criminals. Problems are also increasing elsewhere in the region.

In Denmark, Jens Tolstrup, warden of Nyborg prison 90 miles west of Copenhagen, said Danes used to believe that "all types of prisoners could be in all types of prisons." Now Danish prisons have special units for the most dangerous.

Swedish prison officials blame the worsening conditions on gangs, drugs, an influx of foreigners and a harder attitude among criminals.

Still, few Swedes question the system's focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, although some say the rise in violence shows the approach is too soft.

"One shouldn't praise a model to the heavens because it looks good on paper," said Beatrice Ask, a lawmaker with Sweden's conservative Moderate Party. "We have way too many people who relapse into crime, way too many who don't get the correctional treatment they need. And we have a few who aren't punished who should be punished."

Defenders of the system counter that the crime rate remains relatively low and that problems inside the prisons are minor compared to those in the United States and many other Western countries.

"We're not going to have American conditions in our prisons," Justice Minister Thomas Bodstroem said.

Still, Bodstroem said, Swedish prisons have had to adjust to a "different clientele," isolating the most violent offenders and restricting unsupervised leaves.

Officials say prison murders were unheard of until 1993, when an inmate was killed at a maximum security lockup. Since then, five more inmates have been slain by other prisoners and one died during an escape attempt.

Prison staff members are not armed, and none has been killed by an inmate, but violence or threats of violence against them and their families are more frequent, say officials with the union for state employees.

"Before, there were certain boundaries that weren't crossed," said Roal Nilssen, ombudsman for prison staff members at the union, called SEKO.

Much violence stems from gang rivalries, officials say. In the 1990s motorcycle gangs such as the Hells Angels and the Bandidos carried on their turf wars behind bars.

Those gangs have been eclipsed by immigrant gangs from big-city suburbs, according to a 2001 report by the Prison and Probation Service. It identified the Original Gangsters as the most violent prison gang.

"These new groups, the suburb gangs, they know no limits and they see society as enemy number one," said Hans-Olof Larsson, warden at Norrtaelje prison.

Jarmo Lehtonen, security chief at the maximum-security Hall prison south of Stockholm, said the changes began after the Iron Curtain fell.

"Before we hardly had any inmates from Eastern Europe. Now we have Russians, Balts, Poles and Czechs. They are definitely tougher people than Scandinavians," he said.

About 30 percent of inmates are non-Swedish.

Andrew Coyle, director of the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College in London, said that despite the rise in violence, the Nordic approach should be a model for the world.

"They take the view that locking up the citizens of a country is something to be avoided," he said. "It's not a question of being soft on criminals. It's a question of what is best for society."

Incarceration rates in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland range between 30 and 60 per 100,000 people. The average for Western Europe as a whole is 90. In the United States, it's more than 700.

In the Nordic countries, people convicted of less serious crimes, like theft or drunken driving, are usually released with electronic monitoring bracelets or given community service.

The most serious sentence is life in prison, which in reality means 10 to 15 years. Like the rest of Western Europe, the Nordic countries do not have the death penalty.

In prison, inmates are offered psychological counseling, anti-aggression workshops and drug rehabilitation along with high school and college courses and factory work.

Regardless of their program, inmates get a small daily allowance, part of which is set aside for periodic leaves.

Mikael, a convicted rapist who declined to give his last name, said he works for 13 kronor ($1.50) an hour in the Norrtaelje prison furniture factory, making tables, chairs and shelves that are sold to coffee shops and day-care centers.

Once a month, he's allowed to leave for an unsupervised eight-hour visit with his family.

"If you want to get back on your feet, then this system works," Mikael said, before entering his 110-square-foot cell equipped with a television, laptop computer, stereo and table fan.

"As long as you're going to release someone from prison, then it's important that he comes out the best possible person. If everyone were sentenced to life, a hole in the ground would be enough."

Hans Olof Larsson heads Norrtaelje prison, which installed increased security after a string of escapes and uprisings. At Norrtaelje prison, inmates are offered counseling, anti-aggression workshops and drug rehabilitation.