26 July 2012

A Norwegian prison island

If you're unfamiliar with Norwegian prisons, you might want to start with some background reading.  Here are two old posts -
Norwegian prisons (2008)
Norwegian prisons vs. American prisons (2010)
- before tackling today's subject matter, which is Bastoy Prison Island, as described by Der Spiegel:
No bars. No walls. No armed guards. The prison island of Bastøy in Norway is filled with some of the country's most hardened criminals. Yet it emphasizes self-control instead of the strictly regulated regimens common in most prisons...

The inmates on Bastøy have been convicted of crimes such as murder, robbery, drug dealing, fraud, violent crime and petty theft. "We don't pick out the mild cases," says Nilsen. Some inmates serve their entire sentences on the island. Murderers can only apply to be transferred to the island once they have served two-thirds of their sentences elsewhere. Some 115 prisoners live on Bastøy, and those who wish to stay are required to work and integrate into the community. Anyone caught drinking alcohol or fighting is thrown out...

During the group meal, which is served once day, the inmates in the room include a man with an iPod, who stole two paintings by Edvard Munch from a museum, "The Scream" and "Madonna." There is also the boy with dreadlocks, who raped two women...

This paradise has been around for 20 years -- and has a warden who loves statistics. The numbers, after all, prove him right. Only 16 percent of the prisoners in this island jail become repeat offenders in the first two years after leaving Bastøy as compared with 20 percent for Norway as a whole. In Germany, where recidivism is measured after three years, the rate is 50 percent.

The warden also feels vindicated because there has never been a murder or a suicide on the island -- and because no one left Bastøy last winter even though the sea ice was frozen solid...

His neat room is furnished with a desk and a bed covered with flowered sheets, and there are colorful curtains in front of the window, like in all the rooms. But there are no family photos on Hanssen's walls, and there are no men's magazines on the nightstand, just books. Hanssen is studying history and philosophy at the University of Oslo. He takes his exams on the Internet.

Hanssen is permitted to pursue a degree while on Bastøy, but he also has to contribute to the community. Every day, he sweeps and mops the floors of the group house and dusts the shelves. Then he returns to his room...
Locking people up doesn't do any good, he is convinced, because you can't lock people up forever in a liberal democracy. Reintegration is the important part, not punishment, he believes.
Via Neatorama.


  1. Prisons reflect society.

    A lot of things that work in Norway wouldn't work outside of peaceful scandinavia.
    And even Scandinavia is changing by the way.

    1. Scandinavia certainly has changed (as can people)- wasn't it the original homeland of those ultra-violent lads called the Vikings?

  2. If anyone who fights or drinks gets tossed off the island, that selects for those most likely to get along with others. I wonder if that could be the cause of the low recidivism rate among those who successfully server out their sentence on the island.

  3. Not about punishment? How about justice? (I'm asking genuinely, not as a rant.) How about the two women who were raped? And what of those families whose loved ones were murdered? Where is the justice in the perpetrators of such violence being sent to hang out on an island until they can re-integrate into society?

    1. You asked the questions that occurred to me as well, Brad. Humans, along with other primates and canines, and I'm sure other earthlings, have an innate sense of fairness, of what is right and what homey don't play. All justice systems were spawned to attempt to make more uniform the correcting of a wrong, of healing the victim and their families, of sending the message to everyone: we value you, harmed innocent, we do not value who harmed you.

      So when I read about this little experiment, I think what's the recidivism after two years? How do the victims and their families feel about footing the bill to pay for this lifestyle for criminals who have hurt others? I also wonder when this pendulum will return to equilibrium. When enough criminals get the message "hey, be as horrible as you want, we'll do this for you, and make your victims pay for it" then the crime rate will finally trouble their government more. Here it is one year later and the slaughter at Utoye didn't kick them in the nuts enough to reconsider. Breivik is not going to suffer, while his victims still do.

      Of course, I also sense that in certain socialist countries, if everyone is made comfortable at the same rate, such that what is obscenely unfair and unjust is felt much less acutely, it is somehow minimized, as if to not upset the delicate balance their society has struck, then that may be a factor. In capitalist societies where individuals are left to their own devices, where victims and their families are automatically put at a lower position than any defendant, and the entire judicial system is geared to focus almost entirely on the rights of the accused, then those harmed are more animated to demand an eye for an eye.

      In America, if you the victimized do not assert an accusation, oh well. But once you are an accused, then the entire system lurches to your defense, rightly and wrongly. You'd think by now, we would have worked out a more equitable balance that doesn't continue to treat a defendant like a hapless peasant being dragged before the king's court for trumped up charges, as if the only party harmed is the crown, having been "cheated" of some tax.

      I'm certain I'll drop off this mortal coil before it will change for the better. --A.

  4. I can understand this for non-violent criminals. There is a large difference in offense between stealing a painting and rape and murder.

    1. Agreed, Brad. But even certain non-violent crimes, such as white collar financial crimes, the kind that can toss their victims into poverty and exposure to violent crime, should be treated like violent criminals, because they harm so many, so fundamentally, and only lacked holding an actual gun in their hands. --A.

  5. you cant undo what they did, but you can try to help these people to behave different in the future and prevent others to make the same mistakes.
    what is your justice good for?
    a friend told me two days ago that revenge is a childish emotion.
    Justice sounds like something from the bible.
    Shouldnt we concentrate on fairness and tolerance instead?

    1. Well, I think the idea of justice predates the Bible. However, I am motivated from a Bibilical perspecitve as I am a Christian.

      I would add that revenge and justice are not the same thing, but I would not go so far as to call revenge "childish". Finally, it sounds very naive to me to invoke the ideas of "fairness and tolerance" in the face of violent crimes like rape and murder. I do not think that we should tolerate those things, and so the question becomes what is fair to do with those who perpetrate such crimes.

    2. Anony @ 10:09am,

      You can't undo what they did? Not as if by magic can time be turned back. And that might make sense if humans had the power to do that, but as we never have, that sentiment is meaningless.

      Helping criminals to behave differently is exactly what every effort by justice and penal systems attempt, just by different means. Since the stick doesn't "seem" to work, then some have decided to try the "carrot." Ignoring entirely how that would affect the victims and their families. And their friends. And their neighbors. And the elected representatives.

      And other criminals. Criminals are some of the best learners around. We just keep failing to notice what it is they are learning. To our continuing detriment.

      Currently, if a human has a solution pressed on to them by someone else, the human will regard it with skepticism and contempt, because it's not their idea. However, when the human asks for a solution, eagerly seeks change for their own reasons, then their improvement is much more swift and enduring.

      Unlike Brad, I'm ok with revenge. It is a part of the human emotion set and exists for a reason. Where revenge goes wrong is when it is indulged past the point it does good, like with all emotions. Seeking justice is not, however, revenge. Demanding that you be treated as well as everyone else is not revenge, is it? Well that's what justice is about: ensuring that no one else can mistreat you as if you aren't as important as everyone else.

      Yes, let the person who harmed another concentrate on fairness, for a change. Teach them to be tolerant of their fellow citizens so they think "they cannot harm me for I matter, so I cannot harm them, for they matter." Being tolerant means tolerating what is right, reasonable, fair, good, productive, kind, and just. It does not mean tolerating the intolerable.

      If you do not tolerate racism, does that mean you are intolerant? Why, yes, it does--of the right thing.

      But somehow I sense this Anony is not exactly sincere. Who knows.


    3. Brad- As a Christian, someone who devoutly believes in non violence and turning the other cheek (as Jesus Christ taught and exemplified throughout his earthly life), you might be interested in how your fellow Christians below react to and deal with violence, murder, revenge and forgiveness (as opposed to say your armed, ultra right, pseudo Christians who have conveniently transformed the peace loving Christ into their own fantasy projection of a heavily armed warrior god ready to smite his enemies (which for some reason are usually of the same brown skin he sported while on earth).


  6. OK First: "Justice" has nothing to do with "Revenge". Check a dictionary. The people of Norway seem quite happy with this system. They have a very low rate of recidivism because they focus on making the prisoner able to be a functioning part of their culture when he gets out. This seems to work, not in spite of, but BECAUSE of their far shorter sentences than in the US.

    Then again, prisons aren't an industry there.

    1. I don't think you are responding to my post because I never equated justice with revenge, but I would like to explore a couple things you bring up.

      First, is the victim or the victims family owed no recompense for the injustice done to them? What about their rights that have been violated. Whatever justice means, it must surely have something to do with the compensation of the victim for wrong and not merely the ability to re-introduce the offender to society.

      Second, what rate is acceptable before you turn an offender loose? 80% recovery? So, one in five rapists or murderers turned loose goes on to rape or kill again? That's pretty high, in my estimation. Russian Roulette has only a 17% percent chance of being fatal on the first pull of the trigger, and I would not advise playing that game no matter the reward for "winning".

  7. Brad: No, I was replying to an earlier post. Regarding yours: First: Norway produces far fewer violent criminals as a share of the population than the US. This may not be wholly because of it's penal system, but it is probably one of the factors. Second: The USA had a 70% recidivism rate compared to the 20% that Norway has. That means that a murderer or rapist is more likely do be out doing it again here than in Norway AND we make lots more of them. There may be reasons why it wouldn't work here, BUT since we abandoned the concept of rehabilitation in favor of warehousing and punishment things have not gotten any better, we just have a larger percent of our citizens in prison than any other country on earth.

    1. jaundicedi,

      I see. I cannot really argue with the numbers, if those are accurate. But that would seem to indicate that re-introducing criminals to society in the USA is a horrible idea.

      You won't get any argument from me that "warehousing" criminals is ineffectual no matter how you slice it. I'd be interested in seeing how we could rehabilitate better and punish better (as I believe in punishment for crime.)

  8. yeah sorry for the revenge = justice part, was just an association.

    not sure why people who do stuff with their bodies (drugs and prostitution) are put into prisons, they are not offending anyone
    not sure why people who try to survive are put into prisons
    but i agree that crimes like rape or murder should be compensated
    i see 2 options
    offender gives something (arm, money, life,...)
    offender does something (what for murder?)
    right now they give up their whole life(ex inmates rarely have a happy life as far as i know, which makes them commit more crimes and the cycle begings again)

    They are still humans, who made something very wrong.
    not sure we should treat them different than humans because of that

  9. In my honest opinion, certain criminals never quite made it to human-hood and merely people shaped tumors. People like Richard Alan Davis. Marcus Wesson. Charles Ng. Richard Ramirez. Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky. I could go on and on. And yet, they live. While their victims rot. No, you're wrong. They're not "still humans", they're malignant tumors. What do you do with a tumor? You have it removed.

    I don't get the blind loyalty to the living monster just because it's still using its human DNA, while not showing any loyalty to the tortured and murdered humans, now ghosts. Criminal sympathizers make no sense.

  10. Brad brings up an interesting point about Russian roulette, but I'd argue that one can walk away from the revolver - when we're talking about human beings who have committed a crime, we MUST either pull the trigger, or decide to keep them imprisoned forever.

    To me, it boils down to what we hope to achieve from a justice system. Compensating one's victims for a loss is something that can't really be quantified beyond the level of basic theft - and even at that level, how much compensation is a family heirloom worth? How much prison time does that add up to? What about a violent crime? Can we honestly say that we have any ability to quantify the impact on a crime victim?

    And what is the purpose of punishment to begin with? Do we feel better once we've been repaid? Are we content? I would suggest that the only real purpose of any sort of punishment is as a deterrent to future bad acts. From a sociological standpoint, the only thing we can truly measure is the behavior of an offender. There is no other metric by which we can judge whether an offender has reduced his or her deviance. Norway appears to have come up with a justice system that produces measurable results. I have no valid argument against it - other than my knee-jerk desire for vengeance that comes from being raised in a punishment-obsessed United States.

    I do think that the desire to hit back is somewhat juvenile, and really accomplishes nothing if the bully is done hitting you.

  11. The first victim of any crime is justice.

    I watched a high speed motorcycle chase up there. This guy was hell bent and persued by the authorities for almost an hour. When he finally was caught (he wrecked the bike and ran for it). The cops held out a hand to assist the man from the hole he had jumped into and walked with him to the squad car. No hand cuffs no requisite beating to get the adreniline out... Never in today's USA.

    There was a time, before prohibition, when the USA had the same police effect. Sadly with prohibition came organized crime and once St. Valentine's Day Massacre convinced everyone that surrendering was a bad idea, life here changed forever as the USA found a new economy of law enforcement, incarceration, and regulation. (IMHO)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...