Editor's Own / Politics

Norway’s Holiday Camp Prison


An island of people sunbathing and riding in the sun would hardly seem like a prison, but with a 16 per cent re-offending rate, it certainly seems to work

Alexander Brett

Seventy five kilometres from Oslo lies a small island of around one square mile. Horses walk up to a clustered group of wooden huts surrounding a church and a tractor cuts a small path through a meadow of hay. But this quiet island is no typical Scandinavian retreat. This is Bastøy Prison, a home for murderers, rapists and paedophiles serving the final years of their sentences. And, while it may be low- security, the world’s “first ecological prison” is no experiment, but, as its governor proudly states, “a typical Norwegian jail.”

And with a re-offending rate of just sixteen per cent, compared to a European average of seventy, Bastøy certainly seems to work.

“With a re-offending rate of just sixteen per cent, compared to a European average of seventy, Bastøy certainly seems to work”

But how does it, and, crucially, can it be replicated?

While Bastøy is now known internationally for its liberal set-up, this is a relatively new invention in Norway, introduced in 2007 as a follow through from the national rehabilitation programme of 1997 (many people may recognise the former set-up of a hard-line, all male camp at Bastøy from the 2010 Norwegian film Kongen av Bastøy (King of Devil’s Island).

Certainly Bastøy has changed a great deal from the icy-cold detention centre portrayed in the film, but while the current system is relatively new, Norway has always been a progressive nation when it comes to justice- capital punishment was abolished in 1902 and life sentences in 1981- and, unlike many of its European neighbours, Norway has never placed more than around six thousand of its five million people behind bars (in 2014 this number was only four thousand, making its incarceration rate just 75 per 10,000 people, compared to 707 in the USA). 90 per cent of sentences also last for less than a year.

But comparing Norway’s system to America’s would be unhelpful, given the enormous differences that exist between them, so I will compare it instead to those of other European nations.

And most striking of all when we do this is to find that Norway’s overall re-offending rate lies at only 20 per cent, compared to more than 70 per cent in fourteen prisons across England and Wales (and of course Bastøy’s is even lower, at just sixteen per cent).

So surely this is proof enough that we should be building Bastøys across the UK as we speak; the evidence tells the whole story, and, as the prison’s governor, Arne Knervik Nielsen says: “What’s the problem if it’s a holiday camp as long as it works”.

With a sixteen per cent reoffending rate, it certainly seems to.


But naturally, and however unfortunately, it would be impossible to just move Norway’s systems into a British setting.

Norway’s population is a twelfth of the UK’s, and there are around 84,000 prisoners in Britain, compared to only 4,000 in Norway. Norway’s benevolent welfare state also makes funding considerably easier than it would in the UK, where each prisoner costs the taxpayer around £40,000 per year and authorities struggle to find the resources.

But essentially the fact that we are unlikely to see a Bastøy- style prison in Britain any time soon boils down to a simple difference in mentality: while Brits see prisons as a form of retribution, Norwegians see them as institutions of education and, while admittedly crime rates are much lower in Norway, the justice system tries its hardest not to use prisons as a dumping ground for those with no-hope.

But for those placed in prison, normal life is replicated as much as possible.

“For those in prison, normal life is replicated as much as possible”

At Bastøy prisoners earn around £5 a day on top of food benefit from jobs that include cooking, cleaning and manning the island ferry. They spend their earnings in a mini supermarket, live in huts of around ten people and enjoy watching television, going to the gym or swimming in the evenings. But, of course, as all the prisoners would tell you: “You still feel you are in a prison”. The internet is censored, visiting times apply and there is a visible police presence.

But the trust prisoners experience at Bastøy the prisoner’s governor believes is the most important aspect to a successful education here. There are never more than thirty five uniformed guards on the island, none of them armed, and only four after 4pm for all of the 115 inmates. As one prisoner told The New York Times: “I feel safer here than on the streets of Oslo.”

But after the events of July 2011, when Anders Breivik killed eight people with a car bomb in Oslo city centre, there are some who don’t.

So what of Anders Breivik? Will he be strolling around Bastøy any time soon; manning its ferry and riding its horses?

The simple response is no.

While Norway may have some pretty liberal prisons, for the thankfully very few psychopaths such as Breivik, there do exist some more contained institutions. And while Norway has set a maximum sentence at twenty one years, this can, and for Breivik almost certainly will, be extended in five year periods as long as he is deemed dangerous to society.

But one prisoner at Bastøy, Thorbjorn, says that these high security prisons are often falsely mistaken for the liberal ones of Bastøy and Halden (a high- security centre near the Swedish border where prisoners are treated to sound suites, libraries and running tracks). “Before I came to Bastøy,” Thorbjorn says, “I was in a high security prison, with riots, suicides, you name it, but the press kept putting out stories about Bastøy and the other “holiday camp prisons” as if mine didn’t exist.”


A cell in the high-security Halden Prison

And while these prisons are no Guantanamo Bay (Erwin James of The Guardian says when he visited a maximum security jail near Skien, the temporary home of Anders Breivik, the cells still contained computers and televisions), it is certainly important to acknowledge that they exist, and that they contain a substantial number of Norwegian inmates (so many in fact that around 250 prisoners have recently been shipped to the Netherlands from a lack of space).

For all the talk of Bastøy being a “typical Norwegian prison”, while it may represent a universally accepted Norwegian attitude of education over retribution, these are carefully selected individuals able to cope with the lifestyle and any attempt to flee lands you straight back in a conventional jail.

But for as for me saying attitudes, even in Norway’s European neighbours, can’t be changed, there have been those who tried.

President Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement in 1967 set out to find whether it was truly possible to replicate Norway’s liberal prisons in the US. The response from the nine presidentially-appointed members was “no”; there were some parts of the American mind that couldn’t be changed, and the attitude to retribution was one of them.

But is this really true?

When Michael Moore visited Bastøy and told Warden Tom Eberhardt that it was very difficult for an American to process what he was seeing, he responded: “Why? It’s your idea; it’s in your Constitution ‘there should be no cruel or unusual punishment’. You just forgot about it, and that’s why, in 1999, when the USA asked Norway for extradition of one of their prisoners, we refused, as American prisons fail to meet minimum humanitarian standards.”

So even for America there is perhaps a glimmer of hope that they can see the Norwegian system works and take the lessons from it they so desperately need.

Despite Norway’s relative cultural and economic uniqueness, the fundamental principle of education and rehabilitation over punishment and revenge can and must be extracted and established elsewhere. Their system works, and so can others, it will just take some strong political courage.


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