It always seemed to me while I was in jail that the real prison scandal was the horrendous rate of reoffending among released prisoners. In 2007, 14 prisons in England and Wales had reconvictions rates of more than 70 percent. At an average cost of ￡40,000 (US$60,648) a year for each prisoner, this amounts to a huge investment in failure — and a total lack of consideration for potential future victims of released prisoners. That is the reason I am keen to have a look at what has been hailed as the world’s first “human ecological prison.”
Thorbjorn, a 58-year-old guard who has worked on Bastoy for 17 years, gives me a warm welcome as I step on to dry land. As we walk along the icy, snowbound track that leads to the administrative block, he tells me how the prison operates. There are 70 members of staff on the 2.6km2 island during the day, 35 of whom are uniformed guards. Their main job is to count the prisoners — first thing in the morning, twice during the day at their workplaces, once en masse at a specific assembly point at 5pm, and finally at 11pm, when they are confined to their respective houses. Only four guards remain on the island after 4pm. Thorbjorn points out the small, brightly painted wooden bungalows dotted around the wintry landscape.
“These are the houses for the prisoners,” he said.
They accommodate up to six people. Every man has his own room and they share a kitchen and other facilities.
“The idea is they get used to living as they will live when they are released,” Thorbjorn said.
Only one meal a day is provided in the dining hall. The men earn the equivalent of ￡6 a day and are given a food allowance each month of about ￡70 with which to buy provisions for their self-prepared breakfasts and evening meals from the island’s well-stocked mini-supermarket.
I can see why some people might think such conditions controversial. The common understanding of prison is that it is a place of deprivation and penance rather than domestic comfort.
Prisoners in Norway can apply for a transfer to Bastoy when they have up to five years left of their sentence to serve. Every type of offender, including men convicted of murder or rape, may be accepted, so long as they fit the criteria, the main one being a determination to live a crime-free life on release.
I ask Thorbjorn what work the prisoners do on the island. He tells me about the farm where prisoners tend sheep, cows and chickens, or grow fruit and vegetables.
“They grow much of their own food,” he said.
Other jobs are available in the laundry; in the stables looking after the horses that pull the island’s cart transport; in the bicycle repair shop (many of the prisoners have their own bikes, bought with their own money); on ground maintenance or in the timber workshop.
The working day begins at 8:30am and already, I can hear the buzz of chainsaws and heavy-duty string trimmers. We walk past a group of red telephone boxes from where prisoners can call family and friends. A large building to our left is where weekly visits take place, in private family rooms where conjugal relations are allowed.