Erwin James writes for the Guardian:
On Bastoy prison island in Norway, the prisoners, some of whom are murderers and rapists, live in conditions that critics brand ‘cushy’ and ‘luxurious’. Yet it has by far the lowest reoffending rate in Europe.
This article is written in first person, as James describes his experience of visiting this extraordinary Norwegian prison. He begins with his boat trip out to the small island of Bastoy prison:
The first clue that things are done very differently on Bastoy prison island, which lies a couple of miles off the coast in the Oslo fjord, 46 miles south-east of Norway‘s capital, comes shortly after I board the prison ferry. I’m taken aback slightly when the ferry operative who welcomed me aboard just minutes earlier, and with whom I’m exchanging small talk about the weather, suddenly reveals he is a serving prisoner – doing 14 years for drug smuggling. He notes my surprise, smiles, and takes off a thick glove before offering me his hand. “I’m Petter,” he says.
Before he transferred to Bastoy, Petter was in a high-security prison for nearly eight years. “Here, they give us trust and responsibility,” he says. “They treat us like grownups.” I haven’t come here particularly to draw comparisons, but it’s impossible not to consider how politicians and the popular media would react to a similar scenario in Britain.
There are big differences between the two countries, of course. Norway has a population of slightly less than five million, a 12th of the UK’s. It has fewer than 4,000 prisoners; there are around 84,000 in the UK. But what really sets us apart is the Norwegian attitude towards prisoners. Four years ago I was invited into Skien maximum security prison, 20 miles north of Oslo. I had heard stories about Norway’s liberal attitude. In fact, Skien is a concrete fortress as daunting as any prison I have ever experienced and houses some of the most serious law-breakers in the country. Recently it was the temporary residence of Anders Breivik, the man who massacred 77 people in July 2011.
Despite the seriousness of their crimes, however, I found that the loss of liberty was all the punishment they suffered. Cells had televisions, computers, integral showers and sanitation. Some prisoners were segregated for various reasons, but as the majority served their time – anything up to the 21-year maximum sentence (Norway has no death penalty or life sentence) – they were offered education, training and skill-building programmes. Instead of wings and landings they lived in small “pod” communities within the prison, limiting the spread of the corrosive criminal prison subculture that dominates traditionally designed prisons. The teacher explained that all prisons in Norway worked on the same principle, which he believed was the reason the country had, at less than 30%, the lowest reoffending figures in Europe and less than half the rate in the UK.
James describes the inner workings of the Norwegian prison island, according to Thorbjorn, who has worked as a guard at the island prison for 17 years. He writes:
There are 70 members of staff on the 2.6 sq km island during the day, 35 of whom are uniformed guards. Their main job is to count the prisoners – first thing in the morning, twice during the day at their workplaces, once en masse at a specific assembly point at 5pm, and finally at 11pm, when they are confined to their respective houses. Only four guards remain on the island after 4pm. Thorbjorn points out the small, brightly painted wooden bungalows dotted around the wintry landscape. “These are the houses for the prisoners,” he says. They accommodate up to six people. Every man has his own room and they share kitchen and other facilities. “The idea is they get used to living as they will live when they are released.” Only one meal a day is provided in the dining hall. The men earn the equivalent of £6 a day and are given a food allowance each month of around £70 with which to buy provisions for their self-prepared breakfasts and evening meals from the island’s well-stocked mini-supermarket.
I can see why some people might think such conditions controversial. The common understanding of prison is that it is a place of deprivation and penance rather than domestic comfort.
Prisoners in Norway can apply for a transfer to Bastoy when they have up to five years left of their sentence to serve. Every type of offender, including men convicted of murder or rape, may be accepted, so long as they fit the criteria, the main one being a determination to live a crime-free life on release.
I ask Thorbjorn what work the prisoners do on the island. He tells me about the farm where prisoners tend sheep, cows and chickens, or grow fruit and vegetables. “They grow much of their own food,” he says.
Other jobs are available in the laundry; in the stables looking after the horses that pull the island’s cart transport; in the bicycle repair shop, (many of the prisoners have their own bikes, bought with their own money); on ground maintenance or in the timber workshop. The working day begins at 8.30am and already I can hear the buzz of chainsaws and heavy-duty strimmers. We walk past a group of red phone boxes from where prisoners can call family and friends. A large building to our left is where weekly visits take place, in private family rooms where conjugal relations are allowed.
Erwin James writes this about his experience of the Norwegian island prison:
In some ways I feel as if I’ve seen a vision of the future – a penal institution designed to heal rather than harm and to generate hope instead of despair… It would take much political courage and social confidence to spread the penal philosophy of Bastoy outside Norway, however. In the meantime, I hope the decision-makers of the world take note of the revolution in rehabilitation that is occurring on that tiny island.