“Killers like me have nowhere to hide,” he said.
He tells me that in the aftermath of his crimes, he was “on the floor.”
He cried a lot at first.
“If there was the death penalty I would have said: ‘Yes please, take me,’” he said.
He says he was helped in prison.
“They helped me to understand why I did what I did and helped me to live again,” he said.
Now he studies philosophy, Nietzsche in particular.
“I’m glad they let me come here. It is a healthy place to be. I’ll be 74 when I get out,” he said. “I’ll be happy if I can get to 84, and then just say: ‘Bye-bye.’”
On the ferry back to the mainland, I think about what I have seen and heard. Bastoy is no holiday camp. In some ways, I feel as if I’ve seen a vision of the future — a penal institution designed to heal rather than harm and to generate hope instead of despair.
I believe all societies will always need high-security prisons, but there needs to be a robust filtering procedure along the lines of the Norwegian model, so the process is not more damaging than necessary. As Nilsen says, justice for society demands that people we release from prison should be less likely to cause further harm or distress to others, and better equipped to live as law-abiding citizens.
However, it would take much political courage and social confidence to spread the penal philosophy of Bastoy outside Norway. In the meantime, I hope the decisionmakers of the world take note of the revolution in rehabilitation that is occurring on that tiny island.
Erwin James is a Guardian columnist. He served 20 years of a life sentence before his release in August 2004.