Sentenced to Serving the Good Life in Norway

  • Trond Isaksen / Statsbygg

    Inside the world's most humane prison

    The seagulls begin squawking at 6 in the morning and the cigarettes cost too much, but Lars, 41, knows there are worse places to call home. On Bastoy, an island 46 miles (74 km) south of Oslo, he and 124 other residents live in brightly colored wooden chalets, spread over one square mile of forest and gently sloping hills. Besides enjoying views of the surrounding fjord, they go horseback riding and throw barbecues, and have access to a movie theater, tanning bed and, during winter, two ski jumps. Lars' neighbors often conceal the reasons they are there, but, as in any small community, word gets around. "I try to be as nice to the pedophiles as I am to the drug dealers," he says. Despite all its trappings, Bastoy island isn't an exclusive resort: it's a prison.

    Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, Bastoy's governor and a practicing psychotherapist, describes it as the world's first human-ecological prison — a place where inmates learn to take responsibility for their actions by caring for the environment. Prisoners grow their own organic vegetables, turn their garbage into compost and tend to chickens, cows, horses and sheep. They also operate the ferry that shuttles a number of them to school and jobs on the mainland, make their own dinner (they're allowed to use knives) and chop wood (using axes and chainsaws). Although authorities carry out routine drug tests, the prison generally emphasizes trust and self-regulation: Bastoy has no fences, the windows have no bars, and only five guards remain on the island after 3 p.m. and on weekends. "They are among the worst criminals in Norway. They are murderers, they are rapists, they are Hells Angels," says Nilsen. "But they keep the whole society alive and running."

    In an age when countries from Britain to the U.S. cope with exploding prison populations by building ever larger — and, many would say, ever harsher — prisons, Bastoy seems like an unorthodox, even bizarre, departure. But Norwegians see the island as the embodiment of their country's long-standing penal philosophy: that traditional, repressive prisons do not work, and that treating prisoners humanely boosts their chances of reintegrating into society. "People in other countries say that what Norway does is wrong," says Lars, who is serving a 16-year sentence for serious drug offenses. "But why does Norway have the world's lowest murder rate? Maybe we're doing something that really works."

    Countries track recidivism rates differently, but even an imperfect comparison suggests that Norway's system produces overwhelmingly positive results. Within two years of their release, 20% of Norway's prisoners end up back in jail. In the U.K. and the U.S., the figure hovers between 50% and 60%. Of course, Norway's low level of criminality gives it a massive advantage. Its prison roll lists a mere 3,300 inmates, a rate of 70 per 100,000 people, compared with 2.3 million in the U.S., or 753 per 100,000 — the highest rate in the world.

    John Pratt, a professor of criminology at New Zealand's Victoria University of Wellington and an authority on Scandinavian prisons, believes that the secret to the low crime levels in Norway and its Nordic counterparts is strong welfare systems that reduce poverty and inequality — key drivers of criminality. Studies show that countries and states investing more in education, health and social security typically spend less on their prison systems. Last year, California spent 11% of its state budget on its prisons — more than it put into higher education. "For marginalized populations in Anglo countries, the prison increasingly acts as a kind of surrogate welfare state," says Pratt. "That's not only much more expensive than running a welfare state, it's also brutalizing and often degrading — and that has negative consequences for everyone."

    It Takes a Village
    Thirty-six percent of prison places in Norway, including all of those at Bastoy, are classified as low-security. With perks like unlimited phone calls and up to four days of leave per month, they act as inducements for good behavior elsewhere: inmates at high-security prisons can apply for transfer at any time, and authorities are legally obliged to consider transferring them during the final year of their sentence. And while the conditions at Norway's 52 prisons vary, even the strictest facilities stress rehabilitation over retribution. The maximum sentence, even for murder, is just 21 years. "At some point in the future, these men will live in the community," says Knut Storberget, Minister of Justice and the Police. "If you want to reduce crime, you have to do something other than putting them in prison and locking the door."

    On April 8, Norway took that strategy to a new level by inaugurating Halden, a maximum-security prison 10 years and about $230 million in the making, situated in southeastern Norway. With a capacity of 252 inmates, it's the country's second largest facility — and its most secure. Security guards use a system of underground tunnels to get around the prison, and a 20-ft. (6 m) concrete-and-steel wall surrounds the perimeter. But, following guidance from the ruling Labour Party, the harsh signs of incarceration end there. According to a 2008 government-issued white paper, "the smaller the difference between life inside and outside the prison, the easier the transition from prison to freedom."

    With that in mind, architects designed Halden to mimic a small village as a way to remind prisoners they are still part of society. Hans Henrik Hoilund, one of Halden's architects, describes the prison as "an iron fist wrapped in a silk glove." To avoid an institutional feel, exteriors are made not of concrete but brick, galvanized steel and larch. Trees obscure the wall, which is rounded at the top, Hoilund says, "so it isn't too hostile." Inside, the cells rival well-appointed college dorm rooms, with their flat-screen TVs and minifridges. Designers chose long vertical windows for the rooms because they let in more sunlight. And every 10 to 12 cells share a living room and kitchen, which resemble Ikea showrooms. "Many of the prisoners come from bad homes, so we wanted to create a sense of family," says architect Per Hojgaard Nielsen. To preserve the important bonds of an inmate's real family and to reduce tension, the prison has a two-bedroom house where inmates can host guests overnight.

    "The punishment is to be in prison, not to lose your rights as a citizen," says Terje Moland Pedersen, the Deputy Minister of Justice. Building on its so-called "normalization principle," the prison expects inmates to spend most of their day out of their cells. From 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., the authorities organize activities on jogging trails and in a soccer field, a woodshop, a professional training kitchen and a recording studio. "When prisoners arrive, many of them are in bad shape," says Are Hoidal, Halden's governor. "We want to build them up, give them confidence through education and work and have them leave as better people."

    Strong relationships between prisoners and guards also help with rehabilitation. Unlike their counterparts in the U.S. and the U.K., who are sometimes seen as little more than turnkeys, Norway's prison guards enjoy an elevated status. They undergo a year of theoretical training and a year of practical training at an officers' academy. They don't carry guns — which create unnecessary social distance and intimidation — and they call prisoners by their first names and play sports and eat meals with them. The respect they get from prisoners stems, for the most part, from appreciation, not fear. "Twenty percent of them shouldn't work with people — or animals," says Lars, the inmate at Bastoy. "But the other 80% think it's their mission in life to help people. I believe most of them."

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