Prison is a punishment for those who break the law, but there seems to be a lot of controversy surrounding the treatment of inmates — specifically finding a balance between the harsh reality of incarceration and respecting the general idea of humanity. And then there’s how the system goes about rehabilitation.

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The U.S. remains a world leader in the number of jailed citizens, and there has been an endless amount of talk regarding the wrongful doings that occur at the hands of the system. In 2004, Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group in Washington, reported that over the last quarter of a century, more than 40 state prison systems have been under some form of court order, whether it be for brutality, overcrowding, poor food, or lack of medical care.

But what happens in U.S. prison systems is a powerful statement about the kind of society we are. “You have to ask yourself: If the basic story that we tell ourselves is that it’s all about laws and sending people to prison because they violated laws and harmed other people, how can we possibly justify sending them to a place where that is happening to them?” asks Jonathan Simon, a criminal justice expert at the University of California-Berkeley.

And when you look at other prison systems, the circumstances in the U.S. seem even more grave.

In Norway, less than 4,000 of the country’s 5 million people were behind bars as of August 2014. And when criminals leave prison, they stay out. The country has the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%. The majority of crimes reported to police in Norway are theft-related, with violent crimes typically linked to drug trafficking and gang problems. To reiterate, in the U.S., 76.6% of prisoners are re-arrested within five years.

The country takes advantage of a concept called “restorative justice,” which aims to repair the harm caused by crime rather than punish people—something the U.S. should likely consider.

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Below is a picture of kitchen facilities at Halden Prison, Norway

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Recently, Baz Dreisinger shared an excerpt from Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World with the Huffington Post, painting a much clearer picture of exactly what prison is like in Norway. She found herself interacting with two deckhands on the ferry to Bastoy Island.

“We are criminals,” one of the men told her. “Really, we are. Criminals. Are you afraid?”

She said no, and was then offered a handshake and an introduction.

“I am Wiggo,” he told her. He was serving a 21-year sentence, which is the maximum in Norway, though he’ll likely be out next year.

“We work the 6-to-noon shift,” Cato, the other deckhand and prisoner, 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.”

When many picture prisoners serving time in the U.S., they certainly don’t envision them working on a boat. But Norway is different.

“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,” Dreisinger wrote. Wiggo says that people think Bastoy is a summer camp, but, being a prisoner, he knows all too well the difference. 

“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,” Dreisinger noted.

Bastoy is an open prison, which means prisoners can sometimes keep their jobs on the outside while serving time. Of Norway’s prisons, 30% are open, and Bastoy is considered one of the best.

“More prisons should be open ― almost all should be. We take as many as we can here, but there isn’t room for everyone,” explained Bastoy’s “governor,” Tom. The island houses about 115 men overseen by more than 70 staff members.

“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,” Tom explained.

Tom told Dreisinger that their system is simply humane. And it shows in the way Dreisinger goes on to explain Bastoy’s surroundings:

“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.”

Tom even took her to the supermarket, which sells premium cacao chocolate and aloe-vera juice. She also comes to find out that there are phone booths for unlimited use, though Tom wanted cell phones and internet.

BASTOY ISLAND, HORTEN, NORWAY - APRIL 11:  Edven, 38-years-old sentenced to three years and two months for crime related to narcotics is seen in his kitchen as he gets back to his wooden cottage after grocery shooping in Bastoy Prison on April 11, 2011 in Bastoy Island, Horten,  Norway. Bastoy Prison is a minimum security prison located on Bastoy Island, Norway, about 75 kilometers (46 mi) south of Oslo. The facility is located on a 2.6 square kilometer (1 sq mi) island and hosts 115 inmates. Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, governor of the prison, leads a staff of about 70 prison employees. Of this staff, only five employees remain on the island overnight.  Once a prison colony for young boys, the facility now is trying to become "the first eco-human prison in the world." Inmates are housed in wooden cottages and work the prison farm. During their free time, inmates have access to horseback riding, fishing, tennis, and cross-country skiing. (Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Reportage by Getty Images)

BASTOY ISLAND, HORTEN, NORWAY – APRIL 11: Edven, 38-years-old sentenced to three years and two months for crime related to narcotics is seen in his kitchen as he gets back to his wooden cottage after grocery shooping in Bastoy Prison on April 11, 2011 in Bastoy Island, Horten, Norway.  (image source)

As for the stigma regarding reentry into society, Tom explained that there really isn’t one. “In Norway, when you’re released, you’re released. 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.

“I tell people, we’re releasing neighbours every year. Do you want to release them as ticking time bombs? Is that who you want living next to you?”

Another one from Halden prison.

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It’s an interesting topic, to see the effectiveness of treating prisoners humanely. The prisons in Norway are small, most housing less than 100 people. They’re spread all over the country, with prisoners kept close to their families and communities. The system is designed to resemble life on the outside, so prisoners never feel like re-entering society is hard. A prisoner gets health care, education and other social services on the inside. And sentences are short, averaging an estimated eight months. In the U.S., the average sentence was 4.5 years in 2012.

Norway’s system may seem luxurious compared to others, but it seems to work. The crime rates are low, the recidivism rate is low. It’s a powerful exposé that demonstrates providing humanity makes for humanity.

Related CE Article: 7 Household names making a killing off of the prison industrial complex. 


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