Where convicts lead the good life

Updated on
The World

OSLO, Norway — The first time I went to prison, it was to an idyllic place with lush woodland, bright-colored houses and the waters of the Oslo fjord sparkling in the summer sun.

It was July 2006 and I was visiting Bastoey, an open prison 45 miles south of the Norwegian capital. It is home to about 115 detainees, including murderers, rapists and other felons, who enjoy activities not usually associated with prisons.

In summer, they can improve their backhand on the tennis court, ride a horse in the forest and hit the beach for a swim. In winter, they can go cross-country skiing or participate in the prison's ski-jumping competition.

Inmates work between 8:15 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. The island is a farm, so there are cattle to tend, timber to cut and organic crops to grow. Inmates also work at a sawmill, using axes, knives and saws. Another job is to restore wooden houses dotted around the island. Based on their time in Bastoey, many men will obtain professional qualifications.

After work, inmates retreat to their homes: comfortable wooden houses shared between four to six inmates.

Bastoey is based on the idea that traditional, repressive prisons do not work.

"The biggest mistake that our societies have made is to believe that you must punish hard to change criminals," explained Oeyvind Alnaes, Bastoey's then-prison governor. "This is wrong. The big closed prisons are criminal schools. If you treat people badly, they will behave badly. Anyone can be a citizen if we treat them well, respect them, and give them challenges and demands."

Alnaes' views reflect the way Norway and the rest of Scandinavia run their penal systems. In Norway, there are no death sentences — or even life sentences. The maximum jail term anyone can receive is 21 years, including for murder. Most people will serve two-thirds of their term before being released. Convicts retain the right to vote and can exercise it while in jail.

All inmates start their sentence in a traditional, closed prison. These more secure facilities share some of the ills their American counterparts are known for, including high drug abuse, lack of education and job opportunities, which means most detainees spend 23 out of 24 hours locked in their cells. Even so, the experience of closed prisons here is quite different from those of prisons abroad.

The second time I went to prison was in September, to a high-security detention facility in central Oslo. I was there to meet Bjoernar Dahl, a 43-year-old inmate who, a few days before, had been debating crime policy with the justice minister and an opposition politician, during a primetime television election debate. The debate was broadcast live from inside the prison walls, in front of an audience of inmates and guards.

"It was high time the politicians came here to talk about crime policy," said Dahl, who is serving a five-year sentence for complicity in smuggling amphetamines. "This is about us, what happens in prisons and how we can return to society in a way that is beneficial to everyone."

The show caused no outrage in Norway. There were no headlines expressing shock that inmates could voice their opinions in public debate. Nor was there condemnation of NRK, the Norwegian public broadcaster, for hosting a political debate inside a prison.

"There is a greater tendency to keep prisons open [to the public] so that people can see inmates as human beings they can identify with," said Nils Christie, a professor of criminology at the University of Oslo.

That's not to say that crime and punishment issues are uncontroversial in Norway. The Progress party, the largest party in opposition, has for years called for tougher, longer sentences for perpetrators of violent crimes — a view that has now been adopted by the Labour-led government.

But overall, Norway is much less repressive than America is. Norway has one of the lowest incarceration rates in Europe at 66 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 738 per 100,000 inhabitants in the U.S.

"When you listen to the justice minister, he generally emphasises the need for reintegration into society rather than the need for punishment," Christie said. "In Norway, there is more emphasis [than in other countries] on seeing prisons as part of normal society."

Official policy suggests that inmates finish their sentence in an open prison like Bastoey, to ease their reintegration into society.

Another issue of debate, now solved with the addition of more cells, has been the long waiting time convicted criminals had to wait before going to prison, as Norway does not overcrowd its detention centers. It could take months, sometimes years, before they could serve their sentences. During that time many would be staying at home. 

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify two points about the debate over Norway's penal system.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.