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  • Case study

An entirely new approach to detention

Quality of Life Observer

- Prisons

- Jun 10 2014

Historically, prison has been a place for incarceration. But prison systems around the world may be opening up to a new way of thinking that focuses on rehabilitation. Perhaps none more so than Bastoy Prison in Norway.

Justice systems around the world face the same issues: prisons today are not only expensive, but they fail to rehabilitate prisoners and can even make them worse, according to American prison reform activist James Bell. As prisons search for solutions, ideas seem to connect to a common thread: improve the prisoner’s environment and living conditions.

Facilities that provide convicted criminals with “comforts” such as televisions or radios, private rooms or facilities for overnight visits, often receive criticism. Bearing the brunt and frequently described as “cushy” or as providing prisoners with “the good life” is Norway’s Bastoy Prison.

An original layout

The minimum-security facility, located on Bastoy Island houses 115 inmates in semi-freedom. Here, wooden bungalows replace cement cells, open-air fishing and swimming areas replace barbed wire fences and the mass of armed guards is reduced to a small staff of 70 unarmed workers and guards.

Critics of the alternative facility say it is too good for the murderers and drug dealers who serve out the end of their sentences on the island; however recently retired prison governor Arne Kvernvik Nilsen has the numbers to back up his tactics. In Europe, the average rate of reoffending is about 70-75 percent. This figure drops to 30 percent in Denmark, Sweden and Finland, drops again to 20 percent in Norway, and again to just 16 percent, the lowest rate in all of Europe, at Bastoy Prison.

Facing the reality of release

The prison philosophy aims to create an environment that is as close to real life as possible – without, of course, sacrificing the security of the facility. This mindset is particularly crucial in Norway, a country with a maximum punishment of 21 years. Without the death penalty or lifetime sentences, nearly every criminal, regardless of their crime, will make it out of the prison walls and live once again among society.

Every prisoner works and earns a wage as they would on the outside. The men live together in houses and share cooking and cleaning responsibilities. In their leisure time, they enjoy the sunshine, browse an extensive library or use computers equip with Internet and email. Sound too normal? Well, that is exactly the point. "The idea is they get used to living as they will live when they are released,” says Nilsen.

Consider the big picture

“For victims, there will never be a prison that is tough, or hard, enough," says Nilsen. But prisons cannot use people’s need for revenge as the foundation of how prisons are run, he warns.

Although Bastoy has got the numbers to back its alternative methods, it remains difficult to convince society – especially victims and their families – that this “cushy” prison will actually benefit everyone in the long run. But Nilsen remains firmly rooted in his belief that the mainstream prison system harms people, making them an even larger threat to society. Bastoy, on the other hand, must be a place of healing.


*The Norwegian prison where inmates are treated like people, The Guardian


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Andrew Clark, native of Great Britain, research Professor at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Paris School of economics and a research associate at the London School of Economics. His work has largely focused on the interface between psychology, sociology and economics; in particular, using job and life satisfaction scores, and other psychological indices, as proxy measures of utility.


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