A prisoner named Lars has just finished his music lesson, and with a bit of time on his hands, he decides to retreat to the front lawn and catch some rays on one of the loungers. He then returns to his room, watches some TV, only to remember he has an appointment at the prison’s state-of-the-art dental surgery.
One hour later he’s in the shared kitchen talking to the other guys while their lamb casserole cooks in the oven. He takes a recently-sharpened seven-inch knife and cuts an impressive array of fruits into cute flower shapes. Waving the knife in the air he tells another inmate that they should go into the recording studio after dinner and finish that track they’ve been working on.
They are both convicted killers. This might sound strange to you, but prisons like this might just work.
4. Halden Prison
The first prison we want to talk about and the one we based our introduction on is called Halden Prison. It’s a maximum-security facility in Norway and is the country’s second-largest prison.
Before we talk about what life is like in there, you need to know that the concept of this facility is based on prisoners living like they would on the outside. They lose their freedom, of course, but in no way are they treated like caged animals.
It’s quite the opposite, in fact. The experience is supposed to address the animalistic actions that got the prisoners there in the first place. The focus is to rehabilitate, something that might just happen. You’d hope it would happen because Halden holds men described as the worst of the worst, prisoners who’ve committed absolutely heinous violent crimes.
The officers there are well-paid and well-trained. They are told during their training that their job is to treat a prisoner “so that his sentence is as meaningful, enlightening and rehabilitating as possible.” In fact, they don’t even call inmates prisoners, rather they call them pupils. The governor there once said this about the inmates, “They are among the worst criminals in Norway. They are murderers, they are rapists, they are Hells Angels.”
These are the people who might one day be asked to chop wood. They get to use chainsaws and axes, and it seems, they don’t occasionally choose limbs over wood. If such a thing should happen, the unarmed officers would not be in the best position. They don’t carry guns and they don’t even have pepper spray.
Does this kind of prison work?
Well, Norway’s former Minister of Justice and Police has said he thinks it does. He said that the inmates at some point will have to go back out into the real world, and the one thing you don’t need them doing is committing more crimes.
This is how one inmate put it: “People in other countries say that what Norway does is wrong. But why does Norway have the world’s lowest murder rate? Maybe we’re doing something that really works.”
The prison actually goes out of its way to make inmates feel they are not in a prison at all. They live in colorful chalets rather than cells, each with home comforts and modern appliances. Those rooms each have their own mini-fridge and large TVs, while rooms are designed so that the prisoners have great views of the rolling hills, a pine forest, and what were called blueberry woods. If they get bored of the room, they can always go to the small movie theater in the prison.
Here are some other things on the prison grounds: A jogging trail through the woods, a soccer field, a tennis court, a modern gym, a stacked library with not just books, but plenty of movies on DVD. Maybe the best thing they have is a rock-climbing wall. There are also a bunch of visiting rooms that are more like hotel rooms, and if the mood takes them, inmates can buy condoms for those visits.
If the inmates have a family, they can apply for something called the “Daddy In Prison” program, which means in spite of their crime they can invite the wife and kids to the prison. Once there, the whole family will get a large two-bedroom chalet that comes with a large wooden deck and a pretty garden that overlooks the pine forest. We’ve seen it and it looks like someplace you’d pay to go on vacation. Lots of toys and a playhouse are also available for the kids.
The officers and the inmates are supposed to be more like friends than enemies, with officers going through two to three years of rigorous training before they can work there. They eat with the prisoners and play sports with them, and always treat them with the utmost respect.
In the UK, the average time an officer will spend being trained is 12 weeks. According to the Marshall Project, in the US, training can last as little as five weeks. In Norway, the selection process is actually very strict, so not anyone can walk into the job. At Halden, the warden said, “In our system, officers are quite well paid and when an officer knows more about the law, he knows more about how to deal with inmates and how to avoid violence.”
He said he couldn’t remember the last time there was violence between inmates and staff, saying that in other countries corruption and bad relationships may be a result of undertrained officers working for little money in dangerous environments. The journalist talking to him said the governor scratched his head when he was told that attacks on officers in the UK had tripled in the last five years and about 10 percent of the attacks were classed as serious.
There’s more to it, too.
An American criminologist named David Green talked about how Norwegian society at large treats convicts in a different manner than other countries. He says that in a country such as the UK, a murderer is called a monster in the media, whereas in Norway the media might portray a killer as some who has committed a terrible act, but an aberrant one.
He said the person will be talked about in the media as someone that has some psychological flaws, possibly as a result of the environment they have grown up in. Basically, they can be saved, is the message. They can change.
It sounds like a pretty good life, but prisoners are still told what to do and when they should do it, so it’s not exactly a holiday camp. They have free time, but they also follow a schedule.
This is what one prisoner said who’d spent a few years there:
“I don’t know if I’ll commit a crime or do drugs again. I hope not. I don’t want to visit this place again.” For the prisoners, having their freedom taken away from them is bad enough.
The question is, how many prisoners get out of there and commit crimes again?
Well, in the entire country of Norway, there is a recidivism rate of 20 percent, making it one of the lowest rates in the entire world. That means 20 percent of prisoners will re-offend in five years of being released.
According to the US National Institute of Justice, 77 percent of American prisoners will re-offend within five years of getting out. The UK is a bit lower, but not much lower. There, half of all released prisoners will re-offend within just one year. That’s why the US and the UK have been criticized for what are called “revolving door” prisons.
The argument one could put forward is that Norway is just an easier country to live in, but before the country started these experimental prison programs where inmates can mix dance tunes and take yoga classes, it also had a recidivism rate of around 60 to 70 percent. That was back when prisons were solely punitive, were oppressive, and were violent.
The BBC in 2019 interviewed an officer who’d worked in the Norwegian system many years. He said in the past prison was indeed a tough place where men were locked in cages and plotted their revenge on the officers or society at large. He said the new culture has taken away a lot of resentment and macho behavior.
Could a prisoner just walk out of there?
Well, there is a 24-foot perimeter wall, but you won’t find any barbed wire and you won’t see any electric fences. It seems prisoners don’t try and escape anyway. That might be because there are no life sentences, meaning life where a prisoner will never be released back into society. The maxim sentence is 21 years, and that comes with lots of rehabilitation.
Of course, there have been torrents of criticism about the prison, but the governor believes it works. He explained in an interview why prisoners seem to actually become better members of society after their release:
“In Norway, the punishment is just to take away someone’s liberty. The other rights stay. Prisoners can vote, they can have access to school, to health care; they have the same rights as any Norwegian citizen. Because inmates are human beings. They have done wrong, they must be punished, but they are still human beings.”
As for the daily schedule, prisoners must leave their cells at 7.30 am. They eat and then have to go to work. That could be farming, but we also saw what looked like a very modern garage where inmates were fixing cars. Due to the education programs, some of the prisoners are now qualified mechanics and chefs.
They get an hour in the afternoon to chill, and later they cook a communal dinner. That’s when the knives come out, which to be honest does look kind of scary when you hear a prisoner was in for stabbing someone to death.
According to the New York Times, there’s no need to be worried. The newspaper said that the atmosphere there is tranquil, adding that no prisoner has ever tried to escape. That same article also pointed out that in the US it costs around $35,000 a year for each prisoner, whereas Halden costs over $90,000 per prisoner per year. That’s a big difference, but you could ask if proper rehabilitation in the US would cut down on prisoners returning so often.
This was said in the article:
“If the United States incarcerated its citizens at the same low rate as the Norwegians do (75 per 100,000 residents, versus roughly 700), it could spend that much per inmate and still save more than $45 billion a year.” A cynic might say that crime and punishment in the US is a big business, and there are those that don’t want to see their profits dwindle. Norway doesn’t have what is called a “prison industrial complex.”
Still, surely there is some acting out in Halden.
Half the prisoners are in for serious violent crimes, with many of the rest being in for drug offenses. There are gangs in there, make no mistake, and some of the inmates look like they know their way around a gun and have had more than a few fights in their life.
Violent instances are said to be very rare indeed, with prisoners hardly ever even speaking out of turn and threatening others. If that happens, it usually happens in Unit A. That’s where the few problematic prisoners are kept.
This is a more supervised unit, and it’s there that prisoners will receive more therapy than in the open parts of the prison. It is far from the kind of solitary confinement in the US, with prisoners still having some home comforts, a TV, and being allowed to do things like play board games with other inmates in the wing.
They still get to cook nice food, so what’s really different is the fact they are supervised most of the time and will have to regularly visit psychotherapists. Cooking is actually a huge pastime all over the prison, with one journalist saying when he was there, “I was treated to chocolate mousse presented in a wineglass, a delicate nest of orange zest curled on top.”
One of the guys that he saw cooking, he described as having “666” tattooed under his eye and he also had another giant tattoo saying something not very nice about the police, a line perhaps taken from a famous NWA song. When the journalist was left alone with this guy he admitted he felt quite scared, which the prisoner seemed to notice because he said, “It’s quiet. No fighting, no drugs, no problem…You’re safe.”
3. Bastoey Prison
We don’t want to keep going on about Norway, but you need to know there’s another luxury prison called Bastoey Prison. This is situated on a beautiful island, although that’s not for security reasons. It’s actually a minimum-security prison.
It used to be renowned as a brutal hellhole, as bad as a young offender’s prison could get. Famously the inmates once took over the prison because of the hatred and violence they were subjected to daily. That’s why it was known as “Devil’s Island.” That insurrection was so bad the Norwegian military had to storm the prison, bringing planes, an armored ship, and a submarine.
Things have changed a bit since then, with prisoners now being given the freedom to work on a farm, to take horseback rides, to play tennis, ski, fish, and to pretty much live like they are in a resort. Their food is cooked by chefs, and like at Halden, they live peacefully together while learning skills that will help them earn money on the outside.
2. Aranjuez prison
Outside of Norway, there is a handful of what you might call comfortable prisons. One of them is Aranjuez prison in Spain which has been called, “five star.” It looks pretty chill, but it’s not as classy as a place like Halden.
This is a prison for families, so the kids get to live with the inmate, at least until the child is three. The spouse can also move in. The children attend nursery and because of the design, they wouldn’t even know they were in a prison. The cells are decked out with Disney stuff and there is a crib in each one, while there are plenty of play areas outside. It’s basically a prison disguised as a kindergarten.
Why do this? Officials say they don’t want to split up new families. The men, or women, might have committed a crime, but the government doesn’t want to destroy a family.
That all sounds very sweet, so now prepare to hear something the opposite of sweet.
1. Bilibid Prison
A place called Bilibid Prison in Philippines, where if you have power and money you can live like a king. Well, it depends on what kind of king you are talking about, perhaps one who enjoys a certain amount of vice.
There was a raid in this prison not too long ago and it was found that not all prisoners lived alike. While some had to make do with a bit of cramped floor space and a mat to sleep on, others were described as living in their very own luxury villas.
The raid found that these villas all had air-conditioning, but that was the least of it. One large cell had its very own strip bar. On top of that, some cells were found to contain Jacuzzis, while thousands of dollars and mountains of drugs were also discovered in this five-star part of the prison. Officers even uncovered sex dolls in one of the cells.
The country’s Justice Secretary had this to say about those cells, “They are here to serve jail time but instead, they’re living like kings.”
We don’t need to tell you that this wasn’t about rehabilitation, but criminal power. Indeed, it was found out that the low-paid officers could be bribed and that’s how strippers put on shows for the few men that had the money to live like that.
One cell not only had a stage for them to dance on, but it had strobe lights and a mirror ball. For live music, there were guitars, keyboards, and drums. As for drinking, some very expensive whisky brands were found, along with things such as Louis Vuitton wallets and Rolex watches.
When those guys wanted to take a shower, they did so in a marble-tiled bathroom replete with fancy glass-enclosed shower units. It was basically similar to a rather sleazy five-star hotel.