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Story Publication logo September 11, 2014

Bastøy Prison: Creating Good Neighbors


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Pulitzer Center student fellow Britton Nagy from High Point University takes a look at Norway's...


With a maximum prison sentence of 21 years and no death penalty, one thing is certain in regard to the Norwegian prison system: Every prisoner, regardless of crime or sentence, has an opportunity to become a neighbor. This is a driving concept behind the unique method of criminal correction at Bastøy Prison, and is the result of a foundation based on rehabilitation rather than retribution.

Tom Eberhardt and Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, the current and retired governors of Bastøy, a prison island just south of Oslo, have worked to provide an arena for rehabilitation throughout all aspects of the prisoner's daily life. "I think that in a lot of countries in the world there is a general misconception that if you punish criminals hard enough, they will turn into good people," says Eberhardt. "But I think we have 2,000 years of history saying that this does not work."

With a recidivism rate of just 16 percent—compared to Norway's national average of 20 percent, and rates that range from 50-60 percent in the U.K. and U.S.—it is clear that something is working at Bastøy. According to Nilsen, it's all about attitude, respect, and self-discovery. "The only way we have to change people is to put [them] in a situation where the change can start from inside in each individual. And that has to start with him discovering himself in a new way, instead of looking at himself as a failure."

Bastøy Prison encourages such dramatic change by handing responsibility back to inmates—often through a series of choices. With structured guidance, the 115 inmates at Bastøy—kept to a small number to better create a sense of community—can make their own decisions regarding how to carry out their respective sentences. Some have chosen to work with the various animals throughout the human-ecological prison: tending to horses in the stable, or raising cattle, sheep, or lambs. Others have filled positions as farmers, chefs, grocery-store managers, carpenters, mechanics, and even ferry operators.

Although job training and managerial supervision are a part of the process, inmates are typically working without the presence of any of the 72 staff members—only half of whom are security guards. According to Nilsen, this is a crucial element of the system. "At Bastøy, no one will be waking you up in the morning," he said. "You have to be at work and school on time, and you have to be able to [work together with others] to prove that you are responsible."

Each inmate receives a small salary of 60 NOK per workday (about $10), with which they learn and practice the values of monthly budgeting, saving, and spending. These options allow Bastøy's prisoners to develop real-world skills and experience, applicable to both their interests and possible working positions as future members of society.

Inmates also have the opportunity to finish or further their education while in prison. The entire ground level of a stunning cathedral on Bastøy island serves as the prison's school. According to Norwegian law, all inmates have both a right and a civil duty to complete primary schooling, as well as a right to complete upper secondary schooling. Those who are particularly devoted to full-time studies have the option of attending classes outside of the prison and are trusted to return to the island by curfew each day. Consistent with the Norwegian public school system as a whole, education costs and expenses for inmates are covered by the municipality.

Norwegian criminal law defines punishment as a "lack of freedom," devoid of any and all elements of revenge via physical or psychological suffering. But the penal code does recognize that certain aspects of "freedom," if completely denied, are considered far too destructive to emotional and mental stability. One of these is the freedom for convicted fathers to maintain relationships with their children.

The staff at Bastøy Prison, as well as within other prisons throughout the nation, are committed to providing a safe and positive environment for these relationships to thrive. Inmates with children often go through a series of "father classes", aimed at developing both paternal skills and an understanding of child-psychology in relation to imprisoned parents. A special house on the island, complete with toys, games, and a backyard swing-set, has been reserved for highly-encouraged family visits. As an even bigger step toward becoming a positive presence in the family, inmates are allowed to return home a few times each month. According to Eberhardt, working hand-in-hand with an inmate's outside network is a crucial component of the rehabilitation process.

An inmate's network within prison is just as important. Members of the Bastøy community are split into quaint houses similar to those on the mainland. Although they are forced to live and work in close proximity to one another, Bastøy staff say there is very little conflict on the island. "A lot of the inmates are from other countries. It's a small community where you have people from many different nations, different cultures, different situations, and different crime. So it is quite amazing that it is working so well," Nilsen said.

House members, who serve an average sentence of five years, feel a strong obligation to hold each other accountable for progress.

"We have to spend a lot of time together," said Jonas, a house leader and member of Bastøy's blues band. "When you are in a locked prison, it's easy just to go in your room and close the door. You can isolate yourself from the rest. Here, we don't allow it. If [there is] a problem we take it up. We discuss it out in the open and we solve it. It's something you are going to bring out with you the rest of your life."

That same sense of accountability and respect also translates to the relationships between inmates and staff at Bastøy. Nilsen, the former governor, says that what sets Bastøy apart is not the gorgeous landscape, beautiful buildings, or even the cognitive programs—it's the quality of the staff.

"The most important thing for me was to teach the staff to change their attitude toward inmates," Nilsen said. This stems from his firm belief that equality and side-by-side cooperation are the best recipe for success. "You should treat the inmates by the same respect as you treat the governor or your fellow wardens. With the same decency; showing interest, listening, work together as colleagues…not focusing on the crime, but focusing on the fact that this person in front of you is as much a human being as you are."

Eberhardt believes that the training and preparation for normal life after Bastøy is critical not only to inmates, but to the outside society: "We have to do the best job we can to prepare every inmate for release to a normal neighborhood. I think the good thing about Norwegian society is you can't really pick out who of your neighbors has been to prison. They don't have a stamp in the forehead. More or less, every one of them behaves quite normally."

Both Eberhardt and Nilsen believe that much can be learned from the successes of Bastøy Prison.

"I have had several examples of inmates saying 'The time I have spent here has made me to realize that I'm not such a bad guy. And I have decided that I will change my way of living,'" said Nilsen. "This is not something that we can punish them into discovering,"

Jonas, the inmate, agrees: "I think the principles they run this island by [are] very important. Especially for guys like me who have had a long time in a maximum security prison. And I come here, and at the end of my time I'm going home to maybe do the last few months at home. You get this step-by-step to come back to normal life."

With regard to prison systems in other parts of the world, Nilsen says this: "The prisons are just a place where people learn to be more criminal. They learn bad habits. The fact is that some people are more dangerous and a bigger threat to the society the day they are released than before…We should be aware that locking up a person is a very, very serious thing."

His advice for reform? "We should make sure that the prison, which is an institution to keep the society safe from dangerous people, should be a place for rehabilitation; for change. I believe in change, and I believe that it is possible. And [at Bastøy] we can prove that it is possible."

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