Thu, Feb 28, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Inside Norway’s ‘luxury’ prison

On Bastoy prison island in Norway, the prisoners, some of whom are murderers and rapists, live in conditions that critics brand ‘cushy’ and ‘luxurious’ — yet it has, by far, the lowest reoffending rate in Europe

By Erwin James  /  The Guardian

After the security officer signs me in and takes my mobile, Thorbjorn delivers me to prison governor Arne Nilsen’s office.

“Let me tell you something,” Thorbjorn said before leaving me. “You know, on this island I feel safer than when I walk on the streets in Oslo.”

Through Nilsen’s window I can see the church, the school and the library. Life for the prisoners is as normal as it is possible to be in a prison. It feels rather like a religious commune; there is a sense of peace about the place, although the absence of women (apart from some uniformed guards) and children is noticeable.

Nilsen has coined a phrase for his prison: “an arena of developing responsibility.”

He pours me a cup of tea.

“In closed prisons, we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking,” he said. “In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison, they are likely to behave like animals. Here, we pay attention to you as human beings.”

A clinical psychologist by profession, Nilsen shrugs off any notion that he is running a holiday camp. I sense his frustration.

“You don’t change people by power,” he said. “For the victim, the offender is in prison. That is justice. I’m not stupid. I’m a realist. Here, I give prisoners respect; this way we teach them to respect others. But we are watching them all the time. It is important that when they are released they are less likely to commit more crimes. That is justice for society.”

The reoffending rate for those released from Bastoy speaks for itself. At just 16 percent, it is the lowest in Europe. But who are the prisoners on Bastoy? Are they the goodie-goodies of the system?

Hessle is 23 years old and serving 11 years for murder.

“It was a revenge killing,” he said. “I wish I had not done it, but now I must pay for my crime.”

Slight and fair-haired, he says he has been in and out of penal institutions since he was 15. Drugs have blighted his life and driven his criminality. There are three golden rules on Bastoy: no violence, no alcohol and no drugs. Here, he works in the stables tending the horses and has nearly four years left to serve. How does he see the future?

“Now, I have no desire for drugs. When I get out, I want to live and have a family. Here, I am learning to be able to do that,” he said.

Hessle plays the guitar and is rehearsing with other prisoners in the Bastoy Blues Band. Last year, they were given permission to attend a music festival as a support act that ZZ Top headlined.

The female guard who introduces me to the band is called Rutchie.

“I’m very proud to be a guard here, and my family are very proud of me,” she said.

It takes three years to train to be a prison guard in Norway. She looks at me with disbelief when I tell her that in the UK, prison officer training is just six weeks.

Finally, I am introduced to Vidor, who at 72 is the oldest prisoner on the island. He works in the laundry and is the house father of his four-man bungalow. I have not asked any of the prisoners about their crimes. The information has been offered voluntarily. Vidor does the same. He tells me he is serving 15 years for double manslaughter. There is a deep sadness in his eyes, even when he smiles.

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