Where inmates are treated like people

An inmate sunbathes on the deck of his bungalow on Bastoy.

Bastoy prison island lies a couple of miles off the coast in the Oslo fjord, 46 miles south-east of Norway’s capital. After I board the prison ferry, I’m taken aback slightly when the ferry operative who welcomed me aboard just minutes earlier, and with whom I’m exchanging small talk about the weather, suddenly reveals he is a serving prisoner – doing 14 years for drug smuggling.

He notes my surprise, smiles, and takes off a thick glove before offering me his hand. “I’m Petter,” he says. Before he transferred to Bastoy, Petter was in a high-security prison for nearly eight years. “Here, they give us trust and responsibility,” he says. “They treat us like grownups.”

Petter said this about life on the island. “It’s like living in a village, a community. Everybody has to work. But we have free time so we can do some fishing, or in summer we can swim off the beach. We know we are prisoners but here we feel like people.”

Thorbjorn, a 58-year-old guard who has worked on Bastoy for 17 years, gives me a warm welcome as I step on to dry land. As we walk he tells me more. There are 70 staff on the 2.6 sq km island during the day, 35 of whom are uniformed guards. Their main job is to count the prisoners – times in the day and finally at 11pm, when they are confined to their respective houses.

Only 4 guards remain on the island after 4pm. Thorbjorn points out the small, brightly painted wooden bungalows dotted around the wintry landscape. “These are the houses for the prisoners,” he says. They accommodate up to 6 people. Every man has his own room and they share kitchen and other facilities.

“The idea is they get used to living as they will live when they are released.” Only one meal a day is provided in the dining hall. The men earn the equivalent of £6 a day and are given a food allowance each month of around £70 with which to buy provisions for their self-prepared breakfasts and evening meals from the island’s well-stocked mini-supermarket.

I can see why some people might think such conditions controversial. The common understanding of prison is that it is a place of deprivation and penance rather than domestic comfort.

Prisoners in Norway can apply for a transfer to Bastoy when they have up to 5 years left of their sentence to serve. Every type of offender, including men convicted of murder or rape, may be accepted, so long as they fit the criteria, the main one being a determination to live a crime-free life on release.

On work that prisoners do on the island. Thorbjorn tells me about the farm where prisoners tend sheep, cows and chickens, or grow fruit and vegetables. “They grow much of their own food,” he says. Other jobs are available in the laundry; in the stables looking after the horses that pull the island’s cart transport; in the bicycle repair shop, (many of the prisoners have their own bikes, bought with their own money); on ground maintenance or in the timber workshop.

The working day begins at 8.30am. We walk past a group of red phone boxes from where prisoners can call family and friends. A large building to our left is where weekly visits take place, in private family rooms where conjugal relations are allowed.

Thorbjorn last word before he hands me over to governor Arne Nilsen’s office. “Let me tell you something. You know, on this island I feel safer than when I walk on the streets in Oslo.”

Through Nilsen’s window I can see the church, the school and the library. Life for the prisoners is as normal as it is possible to be in a prison. It feels rather like a religious commune; there is a sense of peace about the place, although the absence of women (apart from some uniformed guards) and children is noticeable. Nilsen has coined a phrase for his prison: “an arena of developing responsibility.” He pours me a cup of tea.

“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.”

A clinical psychologist by profession, Nilsen shrugs off any notion that he is running a holiday camp. “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.”

The reoffending rate for those released from Bastoy speaks for itself. At just 16%, it is the lowest in Europe.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/feb/25/norwegian-prison-inmates-treated-like-people

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