Reflections from a Norwegian Prison

January 3, 2017

Introducing the Norwegian Penal System


Norway addresses crime and punishment very differently to England and Wales.  Alongside its Scandinavian neighbours, it has been considered within academic debates as exceptional, due to its low rates of imprisonment and humanistic approach to punishment.  Norwegian society is also known for its trusting and tolerant approach, which focuses upon equality.  From a prison perspective, this is played out in many ways.  For example, public or community services (such as education and health care) are imported into the prison service and are considered a right, rather than a privilege. Also, the Norwegian penal system upholds the principle of normalisation, which states that prisoners should be given the same opportunities, to those that are not in prison.  Therefore, on a theoretical level, prison is not a place where punishment takes place, but instead, punishment is the loss of liberty alone. 


The Norwegian penal system is not without its problems.  Over recent years there has been much debate around the darker side to Scandinavian penal practice and the notion of exceptionalism has been challenged.  Norway also shares similar practices with England and Wales, with some closed prisons operating to the 23 hour lock-up regime, leaving less room for rehabilitation sometimes.  Prisons in Norway are generally a lot smaller in size and rather than overcrowding prisons, waiting lists are currently in operation under specific conditions.  They may mean that some offenders may wait years before there is a space available in a prison, to carry out their sentence.  This problem is being actively addressed and recently prisoners have been sent to a dutch prison, to carry out their Norwegian sentence.  In light of these issues, taking a closer critical look at Norwegian prisons, and their practices, may allow us to gain some insight into how to punish more effectively and where problems may lie.         


Introducing BastØy


BastØy prison is a low-security prison, situated on an island south of Oslo.  BastØy was established as the first humane ecological prison, which focuses on the interaction between the individual and their surroundings.  The humane ecological principle promotes inmates[1] to take responsibility for their lives and embraces a respectful environment.  In the prison, inmates are required to work.  There are a number of opportunities to work, from farming the land and working with a range of animals (cattle, horses, sheep), to working in the technical departments (including a mechanical workshop and carpentry workshop).  


On a positive note, all food produced at BastØy is used for staff and inmate consumption, making it a sustainable place in its own right, with relatively low running costs.   BastØy caters for 115 male inmates from a range of offence backgrounds including murder, sexual offences, drug offences and organised crime.  BastØy is predominantly for inmates that have long-term sentences who are at the end of their sentence and the average time at BastØy is one and a half years.  The inmates need to apply personally to come to the island and show motivation and willingness to work.  After spending time at BastØy, inmates are generally required to move onto a half way house, which is a smaller prison situated discreetly within a community.  This means that invariably, inmates are fully prepared for their ultimate release into the community.


Therefore, BastØy would be equivalent to an open prison in England, due to its focus on resettlement and reintegration after release.  This means that at BastØy, inmates can be released for short periods of time to spend time with their family and engage in education or activities in the community, which are deemed beneficial for the inmate’s resettlement.  In order to do this, they need to receive permission in a similar way to practices adopted in England and Wales.  During a typical weekday, inmates are required to work and they are counted three times a day by the guards on the island.   The midday count involves all the inmates standing together to be counted by the guards and this is one of the most prison-like aspects of BastØy.  Other than this routine, it is sometimes hard to see the prison at all. 

Instead of cells, inmates live in houses, which are dotted around the island and are situated alongside the church, school, shop and work areas. The houses range in size, with the average house occupying four people.  On the island there is also a nature reserve for birds, beaches and a forest, which the inmates can experience in their spare time.  In this sense, BastØy could be compared with a small community island, where inmates are responsible for fulfilling their daily commitments, with spare time for themselves.  During this time, they can walk freely around the island. 


Importantly, it must be acknowledged that BastØy is not an average Norwegian prison and so generalisations are limited when comparing this prison with English prisons, or even other Norwegian prisons.  However, the values that underpin successful practice can be used as a point of reference, through a consideration into how such values can be achieved, within different prison contexts.

Introducing the research


This project aimed to capture the rehabilitative values of BastØy prison and the reasons why these values were important, to staff and inmates.  To do this, I carried out an appreciative inquiry, which is a process of asking questions that focus upon the positive aspects of an environment.  This project was a collaborative project, which engaged inmates and prison staff in the design, implementation and analysis of the research.  The ethos of this approach was founded upon the recognition that insider perspectives are respected and listened to, embracing collaboration to its fullest.  Three inmates were recruited as co-researchers and a member of staff was allocated to support the project.  Photo-essays were carried out for the research project, whereupon inmates and staff alike were asked to use photography to capture what aspects of the prison they valued, adding a caption which summarised the meaning behind the photo.  In all, 48 photo-essay interviews were carried out during the research.  In addition to this, the photos and captions were displayed in an exhibition at the prison, for staff and inmates to discuss the findings and consider in what ways they could nurture the identified values, within their practice.  The aims of the research were to identify the rehabilitative values of BastØy and consider how these can be used to promote future developments in England and Wales.  The aims were to challenge our current penal system and propose alternative ways, which will contribute to quality practice.  This project was therefore focused upon providing solutions and supporting developments within future prison environments.


How the research came about


In 2015, I visited BastØy prison.  I had heard a bit about the place; namely that it valued working with inmates,  it utilised the interaction of the environment, to promote responsibility and growth and it had incredibly low re-conviction rates (16%).  Having worked in a prison at the beginning of my career and carried out some research in a pretty run down prison in London, a lot of my ideas around prisons were negative.  For me, I believe that prison is the last resort and should be used to incapacitate individuals, with the function of protecting the public.  Subsequently, I learnt that meaningful punishment can be carried out without prison and embrace more relationship-focused and alternative ways to punish, such as restorative justice.  For me, prison is the punishment, rather than a place to be punished.  Based on these beliefs, I agree with the key value that underpin Norwegian penal practice, which promote humanistic practices and treating people who offend, as the same as someone in the community. 

In light of my interests, I was fortunate enough to meet a like minded Senior Advisor from the Correctional Services in Norway, who arranged for me and a colleague to visit some Norwegian prisons.  Rewinding a year, I found myself stepping onto the island prison of BastØy from the ferry and recognising immediately that something felt profoundly different. The atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming, rather than fearful and chaotic.  The people were friendly and inmates seemed at ease, rather than presenting a feeling which was sceptical, mistrustful and closed.   As I was shown around the prison and given the opportunity to talk to inmates, statements like “I like being here” and “I have gained a lot from this place” were alien to me, as I recalled the daily complaints and problems that our inmates experience in English prisons.  In light of the visit, I expressed an interest in returning to BastØy to try and capture what it was about the place that made it feel so nurturing and beneficial for inmates. 

I left the prison last year with my eyes open to an alternative way in which prisons can operate.  This alternative way fulfilled my core personal values around prison and punishment.  I hoped that if I could successfully articulate the benefits of more successful prisons, I could contribute in changing our struggling prisons as violence increases, unrest bubbles and anxieties brew.    





[1] This blog will use the term “inmate” instead of “prisoner” and “guard” instead of “prison officer”, in order to use the terminology that is adopted at BastØy prison. 


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