Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, is arguing that conditions in the prison where he is held violate his human rights. Many Norwegian prisons, on the other hand, are seen by foreigners as extremely cushy. Lars Bevanger describes a system described by one American visitor as “prison utopia”.
Two Norwegian institutions vie for the title of the world’s “nicest” or “most humane” prison.
Inmates on the prison island of Bastoey, south of Oslo, are free to walk around in a village-style setting, tending to farm animals. They ski, cook, play tennis, play cards. They have their own beach, and even run the ferry taking people to and from the island. And in the afternoon when most prison staff go home, only a handful of guards are left to watch the 115 prisoners.
“We have something we call the ‘normality principle’ in the Norwegian correctional service,” says Tom Eberhardt, the prison governor.
“Daily prison life should not be any different than ordinary life, as far as this is possible.”
The other prison that tends to leave foreign visitors speechless is Halden, also in southern Norway, close to the Swedish border.
In 2014 a Finnish TV company took a retired prison superintendent from New York, James Conway, to Halden. His verdict: “I don’t think you can go any more liberal, other than giving the inmates the keys.”
He’s startled by the steel cutlery in the kitchen, and the well-equipped workshop supplied with saws, pliers and metal files. “You don’t have to bake them in a cake,” he quips.
In the inmates’ music studio – with guitars, keyboards, drums and a mixing deck – he wonders whether it’s “a little over the top”.
“This is prison utopia. This is the best prison you could ever imagine – if you were an inmate,” he says.
But though Halden is a high-security prison, surrounded by a conventional high wall, it isn’t typical. Most Norwegian prisoners will find themselves, at least to begin with, in a prison that foreigners would recognise – places where windows have bars on them, and prisoners are locked in their cells except when taking part in group activities.
“Inmates often begin serving their sentence in a high-security prison,” says Jan-Erik Sandlie, deputy director general of the Directorate of Norwegian Correctional Service.
“The correctional services will then consider whether to transfer the prisoner to a lower-security institution. This is in order to create a gradual transfer from prison to full freedom.”
Later, towards the end of a sentence, prisoners can be transferred to a halfway house, which in many respects will resemble ordinary life.
At this stage prisoners might be allowed “breaks” from their incarceration, to make trips home for example, and the focus turns very much to reintegration into normal society.
“This is because we want all prisoners to be as ready as possible for an ordinary life when they are released,” says Tom Eberhardt at Bastoey prison.
- Three cells – one for sleeping, one for studying, one for exercising – plus daily access to exercise yard
- Can play video games, watch TV and read newspapers
- Has a computer (without internet access)
- Can prepare his own food and do his own washing
- Has phone conversations with a “female friend”
- Contact with prison staff, lawyers, a priest, health professionals
- Has declined to play chess with volunteers
- Built a gingerbread house as part of a prison competition
According to the Directorate of Norwegian Correctional Service, prison should be a restriction of liberty, but nothing more.
That means an offender should have all the same rights as other people living in Norway, and life inside should resemble life outside as much as possible. All Norwegian prisoners have the right to study, for instance, and they are all allowed to vote.
Sentences are kept very short. On average they are no more than eight months long, and nearly 90% of sentences are for less than a year.
“This means most prisoners are going to return to society at some point. Put that together with very short sentences, and rehabilitation becomes even more important,” says Anders Giaever, a commentator with Norway’s daily VG newspaper.
Only 94 people in Norway, Breivik being one, are sentenced to “preventative detention” in an extra-high-security prison. This means they can be kept beyond the longest sentence permitted by law – 21 years – if they continue to be considered a risk to society.
Norway’s prison system does have its critics at home, some of whom think it is too soft. Yet it is hard to argue that it does not work.
When criminals in Norway leave prison, they tend to stay out. Norway’s recidivism rate of 20% is one of the lowest in the world. By contrast in the UK it’s about 45%, while in the US more than 76% of prisoners are re-arrested within five years.
Defenders of the Norwegian system are also keen to point out how much money is being saved on successful rehabilitation and reintegration.
“Authorities in the US and the UK might want to ask themselves whether all the billions of dollars and pounds they have been spending on locking people up behind tall fences and barbed wire has had any effect at all over the past 150 years,” says Tom Eberhardt at the Bastoey prison.
- Held in isolation since arrest in July 2011
- Has been prevented from sending letters to people such as the Aryan Brotherhood in the US and a jailed Russian neo-Nazi
- Not allowed to receive letters from sympathisers
- Subjected to numerous strip searches
- Frequently handcuffed
- Separated from visitors by glass screen – except his mother, before her death in 2013
Yet the Norwegian model has come under strain in recent years. Nearly 35% of Norway’s total prison population is now from other countries, mainly Poland, Lithuania and Romania.
“This creates challenges linked to language and communication, cultural understanding, attitudes, safety and more,” says Jan-Erik Sandlie.
“Many inmates spend their time studying, establishing contacts [in the outside world] and looking for jobs. For many foreign inmates this is not interesting, because they might be facing deportation at the end of their prison term, or they are to be transferred to their home country to finish serving their sentence there.”
So far, though, neither politicians nor the general public have shown any serious appetite to make changes to Norway’s penal system and its humanitarian approach.
Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine’s email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.