Prisons in Norway are known for being heavily focused on rehabilitation. Some say they’re too comfortable and forgiving for perpetrators of serious crimes, including violence. Some say they’re exemplarily humane and part of the reason Norway’s crime rates are low compared to other countries.
Upon being asked whether the level of comfort in Halden – also known as the world’s most humane maximum-security prison – is too high, prison governor Are Høidal replied: “inmates are human beings. They have done wrong, they must be punished, but they are still human beings.”
This sentiment echoes some of the principles Norway’s modern-day justice system was built on.
So, is Norway’s humane prison approach the reason it ranks at the top of the 2020 Rule of Law Index? Here are the top 10 countries on the list:
- New Zealand
Eight factors are taken into consideration in the index: the absence of corruption, civil justice, constraints on government powers, fundamental rights, open government, order and security, regulatory enforcement, and criminal justice – with each category being broken down into further indicators such as crime rate, carrying out law, and recidivism.
Let’s dig deeper.
How does the Norwegian correctional service function?
Norwegian prisons don’t only exist to serve as a space for penalty, but also – and with a big focus on – rehabilitation.
The idea in Norway is that offenders should learn from their time in prison, make retributions, and prepare for healthy reintegration back into society. The goal is also to deter reoccurring offenses, so to, in a humane way, help offenders learn and grow as people.
To minimize an institutional environment that would make re-entering society more difficult, prisons in Norway aim to offer a life that is as close to that on the outside as possible.
The Directorate of Norwegian Correctional Service states on its website: “The punishment is the restriction of liberty; no other rights have been removed by the sentencing court. Therefore the sentenced offender has all the same rights as all others who live in Norway. No-one shall serve their sentence under stricter circumstances than necessary for the security in the community”.
It continues; “in accordance with the principle of normality, progression through a sentence should be aimed at reentering to the community. The more institutionalized a system is, the harder it will be to return to freedom. Therefore, one will proceed towards release gradually from high-security prisons to lower security prisons, through halfway houses and finally execution of the sentence outside of prison unless security reasons dictate otherwise.”
In line with these principles of maintaining normalcy and humanity, prisons in Norway have holding rooms that resemble typical college dorms as opposed to the concrete-laden, barred cells (usually shown in big-picture movies) that might first come to mind when one thinks about prisons.
Included in Norwegian prison rooms are wooden furniture, desks, a full set of bed sheets, a flat-screen TV, and a private bathroom and shower.
Inmates can also choose from a range of activities and work options, which vary from prison to prison.
Some offer yoga classes and ceramics workshops, others allow prisoners to cook for themselves, and some offer musical instruments. But all have the same goal of rehabilitation.
For example, Høidal told BBC: “[yoga] calms them,” continuing, “we don’t want anger and violence in this place. We want calm and peaceful inmates.”
Jobs offered within Norwegian prisons include metalworking and woodworking for extra pay, but each prisoner receives food, drink, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and razors free of charge.
Inmates can also work toward earning their bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, while incarcerated.
The Directorate of Norwegian Correctional Service (in Norwegian, Kriminalomsorgen) is responsible for running the country’s prison system. It has five administrative regions:
- Eastern Norway
- Northern Norway
- Southern Norway
- Southwestern Norway
- Western Norway
The total capacity of all prisons in Norway is 3600 cells. Norway has 57 prisons total, of which almost 70% are high-security.
The reason for a larger amount of prisons is the goal of allowing offenders to serve their sentences close to their place of residence – to facilitate visits from friends and family, and well as easier reintegration into society.
Norway’s largest prison, Ullersmo, has a 400-cell capacity. The country’s smallest prison has a capacity of around 15, with the average cell capacity country-wide being 70.
Five of Norway’s prisons are female only.
Here’s a comparison of Norway’s prison population per 100,000 people with 24 other countries globally:
- India – 30
- Nigeria – 30
- Japan – 62
- Norway – 66
- Finland – 75
- Sweden – 82
- Switzerland – 83
- France – 85
- Turkey – 91
- Germany – 94
- Italy – 104
- Austria – 105
- China – 118
- Australia – 125
- Netherlands – 128
- Kenya – 130
- Spain – 144
- England – 148
- Poland – 235
- South Africa – 334
- Ukraine – 350
- Brazil – 193
- Mexico – 196
- Russia – 615
- US – 737
The maximum prison sentence is usually 21 years, but a new code allows for a 30-year maximum sentence if the party is found guilty of crimes against humanity, genocide, or war crimes. The 21-year sentence can be extended indefinitely for five years at a time if ruled necessary, however.
The average inmate sentence in Norway is around 8 months.
Over 60% of sentences last 3 months or less, and almost 90% last less than a year.
Prior to the release of prisoners, the Directorate of Norwegian Correctional Service works with employers and agencies to secure jobs and housing for prisoners if needed.
There’s also the Norwegian social safety net to fall back on, which includes a public healthcare system and pension for all citizens.
Around 3,600 people are employed full-time in the prison service, and about 325 are part-time employees.
Prison officers in Norway are required to attend a two-year program at a special staff academy. Here, they receive education in subjects such as criminology, ethics, human rights, law, psychology, and welfare.
Officers communicate closely with inmates, often joining in with activities such as sports games, and sharing communication. The goal of officers is also to act as positive role models for inmates.
Prison staff does not carry arms in Norway.
A list of prisons in Norway
Since there are 57 prisons in Norway, we’ll focus on some of those more talked about.
What’s life like inside of the “world’s most humane maximum security prison”?
Well, it spans 75 acres and is surrounded by leafy greenery. It includes multiple activity facilities, including a recording studio and a video game room.
Halden has been called, sometimes belittlingly, a “luxury prison” – some even going so far as to call it “possibly the world’s most ridiculously posh prison”.
But, as Norwegian prison officers and inmates hold, there is no such thing as a luxury prison. In prisons, humans are punished by being deprived of a basic right; freedom. Otherwise, the focus is on fostering positive and healthy behavior.
Prisoner governor Arne Wilson (also a clinical psychologist), told The Guardian:
“The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”
In its 32 years of functioning, this prison’s recidivism rates have reached as low as 16%.
Bastoy Prison is an open island prison; meaning, it has no huge wall or electric fence keeping the inmates inside. The prison has had only one (failed) escape attempt in its history, which might be because the incentives to stay are high. Committing offenses while at the prison leaves inmates at risk of being transferred to a worse one.
Bastoy inmates, which include murderers and rapists, have anti-violence and drug seminars that aim to, again, help rehabilitate them.
Bastoy consists of farmland and cabin-like abodes. Inmates can ride horses, tend to farm animals, go skiing, play tennis, and go swimming on a private island beach.
Prisoners are also allowed up to three visits per week and can have sex with their spouses and partners during visits.
With a 400-cell capacity, this is Norway’s largest capacity prison. It mainly takes long-term inmates.
Ullersmo Prison was opened in 1970.
Oslo Prison is located close to the capital city’s center in the Grønland/Tøyen neighborhood.
It’s a high-security prison with a 250-person capacity.
How safe is Norway?
Let’s take a look at the 2020 Global Peace Index rankings:
- New Zealand
- Czech Republic
- Norway (tied with Belgium for 17)
Indicators used to determine a country’s peacefulness in the GPI include perceptions of criminality, security officers and police, homicide, incarceration, access to weapons, intensity of internal conflict, violent demonstrations, violent crime, political instability, political terror, weapons imports, terrorism impact, deaths from internal conflict, internal conflicts fought, military expenditure, armed services personnel, UN peacekeeping funding, nuclear and heavy weapons, weapons exports, displaced people, neighboring countries relations, external conflicts fought, and deaths from external conflict.
It is of note that Norway ranks 4th when looking at the index’s Societal Safety and Security domain alone. The Institute for Economics and Peace describes the domain of Societal Safety and Security: “[this] domain evaluates the level of harmony or discord within a nation; ten indicators broadly assess what might be described as Societal Safety and Security. The assertion is that low crime rates, minimal terrorist activity, and violent demonstrations, harmonious relations with neighboring countries, a stable political scene and a small proportion of the population being internally displaced or made refugees can be equated with peacefulness.”
Here are the top five Societal Safety and Security rankings globally:
Recidivism in Norway
In Norway, capital punishment was banned in 1902, and life sentences in 1981. But the system still saw high rates of reoffending – around 60%. Before a top-to-bottom set of prison reforms in the 1990s, Norway’s prison system had a focus on guarding and security, with much less focus on rehabilitation.
After the 1990s changes, which included bringing in educational programs, workshops, new cell space designs, and a transformation of the role of prison guards into mentors and coaches as well, the recidivism rate dropped to 20% – one of the lowest in the world.
But recidivism can be a difficult indicator to study because its definitions vary. For example, some countries report formers inmates’ re-arrests as recidivism, others the rate of former inmates’ re-imprisonment, others re-convictions, among other inconsistencies.
For comparison, we’re bringing you a list of relatively universally calculated recidivism rates in countries and regions from a 2019 study.
Here are numbers in regards to reported recidivism as reconviction (within a time period of two years):
- Norway 20%
- Austria 26%
- North Carolina, USA 26%
- Iceland 27%
- Estonia 35%
- Ontario, Canada 35%
- Finland 36%
- Oregon, USA 36%
- Chile 39%
- France 40%
- Netherlands 46%
- Australia 53%
- Quebec, Canada 55%
- New Zealand 61%
- Sweden 61%
- Denmark 63%
Shocked by some of the numbers?
The report’s authors ended with the following: “We conclude that international comparisons between countries remain problematic, and the use of a checklist (Appendix 1; Fazel et al., 2019a) may facilitate more consistent and transparent reporting of recidivism rates.”
So, how is Norway’s prison system so successful? Is it?
The indicators of a successful justice system have yet to be universalized or even defined properly. Not to mention the difficulty that comes with corroborating reported criminal justice data worldwide for comparison.
This is visible even through the discrepancies among the numbers and rankings reported in this article.
That said, Norway seems to be doing something right due to its comparatively smaller incarceration, crime, and recidivism rates.
Norway’s humane approach is certainly commendable and should be exemplary for the upholding of human rights worldwide.
But is it Norway’s criminal justice system that can be thanked for the low rates of imprisonment, recidivism, and crime?
Or is a different element (or elements, or a combination?) of the Norwegian culture – such as behavioral norms?
Maybe it’s a lack of data.
Or, perhaps, the Norwegian model really does work.
But then, the question could be raised whether the best system for one culture would fare as well in another, differing culture.
What are your thoughts?
What do you think about Norway’s prison system? Do you think it’s efficient? Write to us and let us know, we’d love to hear from you.
Source: Norway Today