What we can learn from Norway’s prison system

September 24, 2020

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This story begins on the island Bastøy, about 100 kilometres south of Oslo. With men and women happily swimming, barbecuing and sunbathing together, this place may at first glance look like a holiday destination. However, the contrary is true. 115 of the heaviest criminals are here to undergo the last years of their prison punishment. They don’t have too much to complain here, as they can visit the cinema, record songs at their own music studio or even go ski jumping. All of this is guided by unarmed guards who aren’t wearing uniforms. Some of the prisoners regularly go back and forth to the mainland on a ferry service, which is operated by other prisoners.

Talking as a weapon

So what’s going on here? Why would you give murderers, rapists and drug dealers these luxuries? Are the Norwegians the most naive people on earth?

To answer these questions, it’s important to understand the ideas that motivate this treatment of heavy criminals. Norwegians believe in a concept called restorative justice, which aims to repair the harm caused by crime rather than punish people. Guards in this country consider it as a duty to prepare inmates as well as possible for the real world. This also entails that prisoners don’t just sit in their rooms all day. They have to farm, cook, chop wood and hammer to keep the community going. For all of this, they’re allowed to use knives, hammers and other potential killing tools. When a guard on Bastøy was asked if being unarmed against this potential threat didn’t frighten him, he answered: “no, we talk to the guys, that’s our weapon.”

Not far away from Bastøy is the Haldon Prison. The 75-acre facility also maintains as much “normalcy” as possible. That means large rooms with private bathrooms instead of cells, no bars on the windows, and friendships between guards and inmates. For Norway, removing people’s freedom is enough of a punishment. As Are Hoidel, Halden’s prison director, puts it: “All inmates in Norwegian prisons are going back to society. Do you want people who are angry — or people who are rehabilitated?”

Prison utopia

All of these characteristics are starkly different from America’s system. When a retired warden from New York visited Halden, he could barely believe the accommodations. “This is prison utopia,” he said in a documentary about his trip. “I don’t think you can go any more liberal — other than giving the inmates the keys.”

So now the big question is: is this method effective? And even it is, isn’t it way too expensive? In 2018, a team of Norwegian and American economists went to find out. The more they studied the facts and numbers, the more astonished they became. Norway’s recidivism rate is around 20%, one of the lowest in the world. A residence here costs on average $60.515, twice as much as in the US, for example. However, the recidivism level in the US is much higher: 76.6% of prisoners are re-arrested within five years. On average this results in saving $71.226, because the ex prisoners convict fewer crimes. This is topped by saving $67.086, because people find a job more often and therefore more taxes are paid. Lastly, lower recidivism rates result in fewer crime victims, which is inexpressible in money. Conclusion: compared to the US a residence in a Norwegian prison pays itself back twice! 


These insights show that the Norwegian prison system is not some socialistic, naive idea, but actually a win-win situation: it’s cheaper and more humane. So why don’t all other countries follow their approach? Well, a country’s recidivism rate is of course not only dependent on the way prisons are organized, and due to varying socioeconomic factors in other countries, you can’t just replicate an entire prison system. However, the unwillingness to drastically change the way prisons are organized may also be due to the entrenched idea that people, once they’ve done something bad, stay bad forever. The idea that they should stay far away from society, to prevent worse. Bastoy prisoner governor Arne Wilson, sets the right example by crushing this idea: ‘if we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Treat them like normal human beings, and they will behave like normal human beings.’

Dit artikel is geschreven door Sjors Keet

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