Sunday, May 08, 2011

A Truly Civilized Place

Norway's controversial 'cushy prison' experiment`

"Can a prison possibly justify treating its inmates with saunas, sunbeds and deckchairs if that prison has the lowest reo ffending rate in Europe? Live reports from Norway on the penal system that runs contrary to all our instincts - but achieves everything we could wish for."


"On a clear, bright morning in the tranquil, coastal town of Horten, just south of Oslo, a small ferry slides punctually into harbour. I am to take a short boat ride to the sunlit, green island of Bastoy shimmering on the horizon less than two miles away. It is a curious place. There are no secluded holiday homes or elegant hotels with moorings for passing yachts. The 120 people who live there never visit the mainland, but then why would they?

They spend their days happily winding around the network of paths that snake through the pine forests, or swimming and fishing along the five miles of pebble beaches, or playing on the tennis courts and football pitch; and recuperating later on sunbeds and in a sauna, a cinema room, a band rehearsal room and expansive library.

Their commune has handsomely furnished bungalows with cable TV. The residents eat together in an attractively spacious canteen thoughtfully decorated with Norwegian art. The centrepiece is a striking 10ft long model of a Norwegian merchant ship.

If it sounds like an oddball Scandinavian social experiment, you'd be right. Bastoy is home to Norway's only island prison. I am here to scrutinise its hugely controversial approach to crime and punishment, and to do so with some knowledge; the last time I set foot in a prison was as a foolish 23-year-old man.

After my law degree, with a young man's lust for adventure, I ended up in a notoriously harsh prison in Nepal. Through crass stupidity I tried unlawfully to bring gold into the country. I wasn't in for long but the experience terrified me, which was all I needed to get my life in order. That, to me, is the purpose of a prison. Bastoy is the polar opposite.

On board the ferry I am greeted by a shaven-headed prison guard, Sigurd Fredericke, who is my guide and protector for the day.

'Don't worry,' he grins, shaking my hand with a reassuringly vice-like grip.

'Bastoy is not like any other prison you know.'

He pauses, looking furtively around the boat.

'You see that man there,' he whispers, pointing discreetly at one of the three uniformed ferry workers, 'he's one of our inmates - a murderer.'

As we chug ever nearer, and the outline of an old church steeple rises above a backdrop of pristine pines, it becomes clear that Sigurd is absolutely right. Slowly, the idyllic sight of what appears to be a quaint Norwegian village reveals itself, complete with cosy cottages, dirt roads and even horses and carts.

The first person we see on the island, on a wooden verandah outside a modern bungalow, is a man in swimming trunks stretched out on a sun lounger. Nils is 36. He was given a 16-year sentence for shooting dead a fellow amphetamine smuggler over an unpaid debt. Now he's relaxing between his shifts as a ferry worker."

prison library

"'I spent eight-and-a-half years in a closed prison before moving here nine months ago and I'm much happier now,' he says, stating the obvious.

'I immediately trained to be a ferry worker. I'm going on a maritime course at university. I want to be a commercial captain when I get out. Normally all you leave prison with is two bin bags of clothes. It's like your life has been on pause. You just go on with all the bad habits you had before you went in.'

For many of us in Britain the idea of allowing a convicted murderer the freedom to work and mix openly with non-criminals is anathema. It offends our deeply ingrained ideas about prisons as a place of punishment and as a deterrent to possible offenders.

When he recently claimed of offenders that it was 'just very, very bad value for taxpayers' money to keep banging them up and warehousing them in overcrowded prisons where most of them get toughened up', our current Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Kenneth Clarke was widely harangued for his progressive views.

A recent opinion poll showed the British public wants harsher prison conditions; they don't agree with the Government's response to over-population and reoffending by pushing through far-reaching reforms which emphasise shorter sentences while placing prisoners in a working environment.

And yet, an extensive new study undertaken by researchers across all the Nordic countries reveals that the reoffending average across Europe is about 70-75 per cent. In Denmark, Sweden and Finland, the average is 30 per cent. In Norway it is 20 per cent. Thus Bastoy, at just 16 per cent, has the lowest reoffending rate in Europe."

phone booths for prisoners

"A group of inmates is raking leaves in the church grounds as we pull up outside an old white administration building. In terms of food and d├ęcor, its canteen alone could pass for a trendy London restaurant. Upstairs in his neat office, the prison governor, Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, is keen to explain what this bizarre place is all about.

'I believe that we as human beings, if we are prepared to make fundamental changes in the way we regard crime and punishment, can dramatically improve the rehabilitation of prisoners and thereby reduce the reoffending rates,' he says.

'Bastoy is an ongoing experiment, but I really hope the results will benefit not only Norway but the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.'"

Interesting outtake from Michael Moore's "Sicko"
Contrast it to american fascism.

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