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Take A Look At One Of The Most Humane Prisons In The World

Although it’s a punishment for those that break the law, there seems to be a lot of controversy about the treatment of inmates in prisons around the world – especially in the USA. Finding a balance between the reality of incarceration and the idea of humanity is vital, and also the reason why the system doesn’t work.

The USA is a world leader in the number of inmates, and there has been a lot of talk about the inhumane acts done to inmates. Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, reported that more than 40 prison systems have been under a form of court order in the last 25 years, regardless if it’s for brutality, overcrowding, poor food or lack of medical care. “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.

Looking at other prisons around the world makes the US prisons even more absurd. In Norway, only 4000 citizens were jailed as of August 2014, and Norway is a country of 5 million people. They also have the lowest recidivism rates in the world (20%). Most of the crimes in Norway are thefts, and violent crimes in the country are related to drug and gang problems. In the USA, 76.6% of the prisoners are arrested again after 5 years. Norway uses a concept called restorative justice in order to repair the harm caused rather than using harsh punishment, which the USA needs to consider. Here’s a picture of the kitchen at Halden Prison in Norway.


Baz Dreisinger has recently shared an excerpt from Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World with the Huffington Post, where she wrote about the life in a Norwegian prison. She interacted with two prisoners on her way to Bastoy Island, an open prison in Norway.

“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. Wiggo was serving the maximum 21-year sentence in Norway and was due to get out next year.

“We work the 6-to-noon shift,” the other 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.” Inmates in the USA are certainly not allowed to be working on a boat.

“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 wrote.

Bastoy is an open prison with inmates left to keep their jobs while serving time. 30% of Norway’s prisons are open, with Bastoy considered 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,” says Bastoy’s “governor,” Tom. The island houses 115 men overseen by 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 says.

The governor told Baz that the system is definitely humane. “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,” Dreisinger writes. Tom took her to the supermarket, and she found out that there are phone booths on the island, although Tom wanted internet and mobile phones available to inmates.


The governor also says that there’s no stigma regarding the reentry of the inmates into society. “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 neighbors every year. Do you want to release them as ticking time bombs? Is that who you want living next to you?”


Treating inmates humanely is very important, as is keeping them in smaller prisons. Norway has many prisons housing less than 100 people spread all over the country, with the inmates close to their families and keeping their jobs. The system tries to resemble normal life, so the prisoners can reenter society easily. The sentences are short as well – they are 8 months on average.

Norway’s system may look luxurious, but it works – crime rates are down, and recidivism rate is low, which proves that there is need for more humanity in prisons.

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