Norway Proves That Treating Prison Inmates As Human Beings Actually Works

"Treat people like dirt, and they will be dirt. Treat them like human beings, and they will act like human beings."

03/08/2016 10:59 PM AEST | Updated 03/08/2016 10:59 PM AEST
Marco Di Lauro via Getty Images
A ferry heads to Bastoy Prison on April 11, 2011.

BASTOY ISLAND, Norway ― “Prison?” I asked the two deckhands, after a train carried me to the ferry.

“Yes,” said one of the men, rubbing his hands together for warmth. He looked me up and down with arrogant blue eyes. “But sorry, it is only for men.” He laughed. “Come, come, you’re in the right place.”

I looked up at the masthead and noticed that it was crowned by a dead, stuffed swan.

“We found it frozen in a block of ice, years ago,” said the other deckhand. He wore a black ski hat and had a wizened, kindly face.

“It’s creepy-looking,” I said.

“You think so? Our mascot. You are afraid of criminals?” he suddenly asked. Before I could answer, “We are criminals.” I looked into his eyes; they were laughing. Was he kidding?

“Really, we are. Criminals. Are you afraid?”

“Why would I be?” I shrugged. I still wasn’t sure if he was joking.

“I am Wiggo,” he said, offering a handshake. He was indeed a prisoner, serving a 21-year sentence, the maximum in Norway, but he’ll likely be out next year.

Cato, the other deckhand, was serving one and a half years for intention to commit a criminal act, though he insisted he’s innocent. He and Wiggo brought me to a vestibule to show me their daily schedule, posted on the wall.

“We work the 6-to-noon shift,” Cato said. “Then we go back to the prison and relax or exercise. Come, you want to meet the captain? He is not a prisoner. The only one who isn’t, on this boat.”

Upstairs, the sturdy captain shook my hand.

“You talking to those criminals?” he said, with a laugh. I was lapping up this playful mockery of the scary-criminals mentality. There was clearly nothing to be afraid of here, and everyone seemed to know it.

It’s a total erasure of boundaries between 'us' and 'them.'

As the boat set sail, I spied Bastoy, a cluster of gangly pine trees in a gray sea stretching toward a gray sky. Inside the boat’s small seating area, Cato sat down next to me and turned on the TV, flipping to the History Channel.

“Are you on Facebook?” he asked.

“You’re allowed Facebook? And internet?” I countered.

“Not while over there.” He pointed to the pine trees. “But yes, when we are on home leave.” I jotted down my name on a slip of paper. For the first time since my arrival, a thin line of blue sky appeared overhead.

Marco Di Lauro via Getty Images
An inmate rides a horse wagon in Bastoy Prison on April 11, 2011.

“They say it is a summer camp, Bastoy,” said Wiggo, as I left the cabin to disembark. He was almost reprimanding me. “You will maybe think so. But no, it is prison. Trust me. We have our life stopped. Frozen.”

I pointed to the swan. “Like your mascot. Frozen. Even on a beautiful island.”

Wiggo nodded emphatically.

“Back to the mainland!” he called to Cato, ready for another run. Modern-day Charons, I thought. Ferrying new souls across the river to the underworld.

It hardly looked like the underworld, though. Wiggo was right; it did look like summer camp. Mottled leaves fell on cyclers ― yes, cycling prisoners ― and a horse-and-carriage cantered by. Gingerbread houses dotted the landscape; they were dull yellow, with green trim and red roofs. I spied sheep and cows but no fence or barbed wire.

Bastoy is an open prison, a concept born in Finland during the 1930s and now part of the norm throughout Scandinavia, where prisoners can sometimes keep their jobs on the outside while serving time, commuting daily. Thirty percent of Norway’s prisons are open, and Bastoy, a notorious reformatory for boys converted in 1982 to a prison, is considered the crown jewel of them all.

Marco Di Lauro via Getty Images
Edven, 38 and sentenced to more than three years for a crime related to narcotics, stands in the kitchen of his wooden cottage in Bastoy Prison on April 11, 2011.

A small yellow van driven by a smiling officer carried me to a cabin where I checked my phone in, the first thing that remotely suggested “prison.” Tom, the governor ― not warden or superintendent but governor ― looked like Kevin Costner. He offered me a cup of coffee, and we took a seat in his office, which, with its floral drapes, aloe plants and faintly perfumed, cinder scent, reminded me of a quaint bed-and-breakfast somewhere in New England.

“It doesn’t work. We only do it because we’re lazy,” Tom said flatly. He was talking about the traditional prison system, where he was stationed for 22 years before running this open prison. A fly buzzed loudly by the window as Tom went on.

“I started skeptical. That changed quickly. More prisons should be open ― almost all should be. We take as many as we can here, but there isn’t room for everyone.” Prisoners from around the country can apply to move to an open prison like Bastoy when they’re within three years of release. The island is home to about 115 men overseen by over 70 staff members, and there is a waiting list of about 30.

“There’s a perception that, ‘Oh, this is the lightweight prison; you just take the nice guys for the summer-camp prison.’ But in fact, no. Our guys are into, pardon my French, some heavy shit. Drugs and violence. And the truth is, some have been problematic in other prisons but then they come here, and we find them easy. We say, ‘Is that the same guy you called difficult?’ It’s really very simple: Treat people like dirt, and they will be dirt. Treat them like human beings, and they will act like human beings.”

He opened the window to let the fly go free.

“Come, let’s take a stroll.”

'Treat people like dirt, and they will be dirt. Treat them like human beings, and they will act like human beings.'

We wandered through the forest, past grazing horses, a breeding area for birds, a greenhouse and a barbecue pit where men can cook lunch. Prisoners live in shared houses that resemble log cabins. The delicious smell of burning firewood wafted through the air, and South Africa’s Robben Island sprang to mind. Bastoy is the opposite of its doppelgänger: not a dark, evil twin but the humane edition of that prison-island hellhole.

“It’s not about running a prison but running an island,” Tom explained. “Agriculture is a big part of our philosophy. We are humane, ecological. Animals have a social function too, teaching empathy. Everyone works the land.”

This is a nature reserve, growing about 25 percent of its food. Most vehicles are electric, and everything is recycled.

“Do you live on the island?” I asked.

“I commute by boat every day. I love this. No more driving in traffic to Oslo.” He shook his head. “I knew nothing about any of this, you know. I was a city boy. Now my life is so much restored by this place, this lifestyle. Just like for the prisoners.”

Marco Di Lauro via Getty Images
An inmate, who was sentenced to 16.5 years for murder and narcotics crimes, sunbathes in front of the wooden cottage where he lives in Bastoy Prison on April 11, 2011.

Tom showed me a wooden church ornamented by a brass chandelier. “Norway is secular so this is more of a cultural space; the chaplain is more of a therapist than an old-fashioned minister,” he explained. He also took me to a gleaming supermarket, which sells premium cacao chocolate and aloe-vera juice. There are red phone booths for unlimited use, although Tom thought cell phones and internet should be permitted in all prisons.

“What are we afraid of? You can’t kill anyone by internet or by phone,” he muttered.

I asked about stigma and reentry into society.

“In Norway, when you’re released, you’re released,” he replied. “No big stigma. One guy I know spent 18 years in prison and is now living in my neighborhood. A normal old guy. No one cares. You find this a lot. I have many friends who’ve been to prison. Norwegians are very forgiving people.” He paused. “Strange because we weren’t always like that.”

Marco Di Lauro via Getty Images
Old telephone booths, part of the heritage of the island and used by the inmates to call outside the prison, are seen in Bastoy Prison on April 12, 2011.

That’s an understatement. This is the land of the pillaging Vikings and of the Nordic sagas, depicted on wooden friezes outside Oslo’s city hall, which I had visited the other day. The sagas are long tales of violence, murder, jealousy and revenge, and it’s fascinating to think that somewhere deep in Norway’s past, a social tide turned, and a culture of peace and forgiveness came to triumph.

Over lunch, Tom continued to impress me. He explained that although the “conservative” party here would be considered liberal anywhere else and in general, the left and the right agree on the main threads of correctional policy, an influx of immigrants, rising xenophobia and conservative politics lately threaten to undermine the country’s progressive system and soft-on-crime approach. An anti-immigration Progress Party, part of the conservative-led government, is promoting a backlash against what’s known as “naving,” or living off welfare ― NAV is the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration. In recent years, a local newspaper claimed that 80 percent of Norwegians want stricter punishments, and a 2010 survey showed that a majority felt punishments were generally too lenient.

“It’s your media that’s also responsible,” Tom said, biting into a slice of whole-grain toast with brown cheese. “American TV shows about tough prisons and talk about being ‘tough on crime.’ It influences people here. But thankfully that’s started to change. All the bad press in the past few years from you guys has started to make us not take you all so seriously anymore. Especially in elections. In the political speeches, those biblical references by a secular country? And Sarah Palin? People are laughing and also crying ― this is a country we want to imitate?”

I sighed. It’s disturbing, the way media can make and unmake the problem. I said as much, adding that the culture of fear is to blame. I told him a little about my Australian experience and the Murdoch media.

“Yes,” Tom concurred. “Talk to people at a party and every ― pardon my French ― idiot will insist there’s more crime than there is. Statistics say there is nothing to fear.” 

Nothing represents the Norwegian way like its prison system.

A study of home leave in Germany, I said, found that the failure-to-return rate amounts to a mere 1 percent.

“Exactly,” Tom nodded. “Here there were instances where prisoners committed crime while on home leave, but so few of them. You can’t construct a whole justice system around one or two exceptions.”

“I tell people, we’re releasing neighbors every year. Do you want to release them as ticking time bombs? Is that who you want living next to you? Hey” ― he put down his toast ― “have you seen the film about the warden from Attica, New York?”

A recent Finnish documentary depicts a former Attica superintendent’s tour of Halden, another prison in Norway focused on rehabilitation. Where the Norwegian officials see rehabilitation and correction, the American saw risk and danger. While Halden staff interacting with prisoners ― playing cards, for example ― is a vital part of Halden’s ideology, the American superintendent said that’s not allowed at the Attica prison.

In response, Tom said to me, “How can you help the prisoners if you are not sharing, about you and your life and your kids? The men here know my kids, my address, everything. Why should I be afraid?”

Marco Di Lauro via Getty Images
Bjorn, 54, who was sentenced to five and a half years for attempted murder, stands in front of the wooden cottage where he lives in Bastoy Prison on April 12, 2011.

If ever there was a utopia, Norway has a reputation for being it. It’s an oil-rich welfare society ― top-quality education, health and child care are provided almost entirely by the state ― with a long-standing culture of equality, safety and communitarianism. Instead of serfdoms or a feudal society, for centuries Norway’s economic life was based on small village units and local democratic self-government; nobility was abolished over 200 years ago, and there’s never been a distinct upper class. Norway’s climate and geography limited immigration, and cohesion was fortified by the country’s uniform population.

Nothing represents the Norwegian way like its prison system, which has adopted a “principle of normality,” according to which punishment is the restriction of liberty itself and which mandates that no one shall serve their sentence under stricter circumstances than is required by the security of the community.

Criminologist John Pratt summed up the Scandinavian approach using the term “penal exceptionalism,” referring to these countries’ low rates of imprisonment and humane prison conditions. Prisons here are small, most housing fewer than 100 people and some just a handful. They’re spread all over the country, which keeps prisoners close to their families and communities, and are designed to resemble life on the outside as much as possible.

An incarcerated person’s community continues to handle his health care, education and other social services while he’s incarcerated. The Norwegian import model, as it is known, thus connects people in prison to the same welfare organizations as other citizens and creates what’s called a seamless sentence ― a person belongs to the same municipality before and after prison. Sentences here are short, averaging an estimated eight months, as compared to America, where the estimated average sentence was 4.5 years in 2012. Almost no one serves all his time, and after one-third of it is complete, a person in prison can apply for home leave and spend up to half his sentence off the premises.

And the most highly touted aspect of the humane Norwegian prison system is the fact that it seems to work. Crime rates are very low, and the recidivism rate is a mere 20 percent.

The most highly touted aspect of the humane Norwegian prison system is the fact that it seems to work.

After my visit, as I waited for the yellow van to carry me back to the boat and to Oslo, a man with a chipped front tooth stood beside me.

“You are from America?” he asked. “You must think this place is crazy, huh?” Without letting me answer, he went on.

“But if you treat people like shit, they will be shit. Why doesn’t America get it? Funny, because Tony Robbins is so smart, and he is from America.” He was talking about the self-help guru known for infomercials and books such as Unleash the Power Within. The man let out a nervous laugh.

“What are you doing here?” I asked him. His blue parka said ENGINEERING, so I assumed he must be repairing equipment.

“Me? I am sitting here. I am going to see the doctor, because I may have to be transferred to another open prison. I am developing allergies to horses.”

Oh ― he’s in prison here. I had no idea.

I found my own cluelessness deeply moving. He and I were two human beings. Like my meeting with the deckhands Wiggo and Cato, our casual, normal interaction contrasted starkly with the many prison interviews I’ve done over the years; it’s a total erasure of boundaries between “us” and “them.”

Chatting with me like an old friend on the ride back to the mainland, he told me that he once worked in oil and traveled the world and although home leaves have kept him close to family and community, when he goes home next year, it won’t be so easy to pick up the pieces.

“I am hopeful, though. In prison, you can choose to see the sky or choose to see the moss on the ground. I look at the sky.”

This is a modified excerpt from “Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World” (Other Press Hardcover; 2016) by Baz Dreisinger. Copyright © Baz Dreisinger. With permission from Other Press.