The first clue that things are done very differently on Bastoy prison island, which lies several kilometers off the coast in the Oslo fjord, 74km southeast of Norway’s capital, comes shortly after I board the prison ferry. I’m taken aback slightly when the ferry operative who welcomed me aboard just minutes earlier, and with whom I’m exchanging small talk about the weather, suddenly reveals he is a serving prisoner — doing 14 years for drug smuggling. He notes my surprise, smiles and takes off a thick glove before offering me his hand.
“I’m Petter,” he said.
Before he was transferred to Bastoy, Petter was in a high--security prison for nearly eight years.
“Here, they give us trust and responsibility,” he said. “They treat us like grownups.”
I have not come here particularly to draw comparisons, but it is impossible not to consider how politicians and the popular media would react to a similar scenario in Britain.
There are big differences between the two countries, of course. Norway has a population of slightly less than 5 million, a 12th of the UK’s. It has fewer than 4,000 prisoners; there are about 84,000 in the UK. However, what really sets the two apart is the Norwegian attitude toward prisoners. Four years ago, I was invited into Skien maximum security prison, 32km north of Oslo. I had heard stories about Norway’s liberal attitude. In fact, Skien is a concrete fortress as daunting as any prison I have ever experienced and houses some of the most serious lawbreakers in the country. Recently, it was the temporary residence of Anders Breivik, the man who massacred 77 people in July 2011.
However, despite the seriousness of their crimes, I found that the loss of liberty was all the punishment they suffered. Cells had TVs, computers, private showers and sanitation. Some prisoners were segregated for various reasons, but as the majority served their time — anything up to the 21-year maximum sentence (Norway has no death penalty or life sentence) — they were offered education, training and skill-building programs. The country has, at less than 30 percent, the lowest reoffending figures in Europe and less than half the rate in the UK.
As the ferry powers through the freezing early-morning fog, Petter tells me he is appealing his conviction. If it fails, he will be on Bastoy until his release in two years’ time. I ask him what life is like on the island.
“It’s like living in a village, a community,” he said. “Everybody has to work, but we have free time, so we can do some fishing, or in summer we can swim off the beach. We know we are prisoners, but here we feel like people.”
I was not sure what to expect on Bastoy. A number of wide-eyed commentators before me have variously described conditions under which the island’s 115 prisoners live as “cushy,” “luxurious” and “like a holiday camp.”
I am skeptical of such media reports.
As a life prisoner, I spent the first eight years of the 20 I served in a cell with a bed, a chair, a table and a bucket for my toilet. In that time, I was caught up in a major riot, trapped in a siege and witnessed regular acts of serious violence. Across the prison estate, several hundred prisoners took their own lives, half a dozen of whom I knew personally — and a number were murdered. Yet the constant refrain from the popular press was that I, too, was living in a “holiday camp.” When in-cell toilets were installed, and a few years later we were given small TVs, the “luxury prison” headlines intensified and for the rest of the time I was in prison, it never really abated.