An island prison in Norway, Bastoy prison, is testing Western notions of what justice means for murderers, rapists, and lesser offenders whom we lock away in penal systems. Critics have called it a “holiday resort,” as those who live there get privileges to fish or ride their bikes, live each in their own room in houses spread across the island, but are also given responsibilities and jobs — rehabilitation is the key feature. And with only 16 percent reoffending rate, it is by far the lowest in Europe.
Norway has no death penalty or life sentence — 21-years is their maximum sentence — and unlike anything you would imagine from what long ago was a Viking culture, their system is compassionate.
Arne Nilsen, the governor, and by training a clinical psychology, explained to The Guardian what his prison aims at, saying, “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. 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.”
“You don’t change people by power,” he says. “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.”
Who is watching them all the time? Prison guards who have been trained for three years, as opposed to six weeks in England. One female prison guard explained to the Guardian that “There is so much to learn about the people who come to prison. We need to try to understand how they became criminals, and then help them to change. I’m still learning.”
“Our crime against criminals lies in the fact that we treat them like rascals,” said Nietzsche, and in another place suggests that one day they may sooner be treated with physicians than prisons.
Said one inmate to the Guardian, “Here, they give us trust and responsibility. They treat us like grownups.” Strangely enough, it seems to be working. Could it work elsewhere?