Crime and punishment, Norwegian style
- 19 May 2012
- From the section Europe
There has been a lot of introspection in Norway in the year following the attacks carried out by Anders Behring Breivik.
The country's justice system has been subject to intensive scrutiny, and foreigners might be forgiven for assuming that public opinion on crime and punishment had hardened.
But according to the junior minister for justice, Kristin Bergersen, it has not.
"I think the debate we are seeing in Norway right now establishes that we have the right values and the right system for punishment here," she says.
It is highly unlikely that Breivik will ever set foot on the prison island of Bastoey. Norway does have solitary confinement cells and high-security wings.
But although it is only one, liberal, end of a penal spectrum, the open prison where inmates wander woods, fields and beaches unhindered is still an important symbol of the Norwegian system. Indeed, to many, it is the jewel in its crown.
"Fundamentally, we believe you have to start with prisoner rehabilitation on day one," Ms Bergersen. "Everybody knows that when you are released in Norway you can be somebody's neighbour.
"It is in the public interest, when it comes to security, that you receive rehabilitation when you are inside the prison system so that you can go out and lead the life that everybody else takes for granted."
Bastoey might be seen as the softest option by some. Its inmates are among the most hardened criminals.
Typically, they are serving long sentences - by Norwegian standards - for the most serious crimes.
Murderers and sex offenders of many different races and nationalities are expected to live peacefully together in small chalets that dot the island.
Of course, prisoners who go to Bastoey are carefully selected. Often they are approaching the end of their sentence and release.
In all cases, they are individuals who have decided they could benefit from the lifestyle.
"It's difficult to say that I like being here," says Morten, a 29-year-old Danish man serving a sentence of nearly three years. "But I think if this wasn't a prison, the Norwegian government could rent it out for holidays.
"You are not free, of course. If you tried to escape you would be put back in a normal prison immediately. But if you have to be in prison, this is a good place to be.
"You can do almost whatever you want to. You can walk around the island, play football or hockey or go fishing. In the summer, we have our own beach and you can go there and enjoy the sun."
Morten is in the middle of a training session, learning how to cut planks of wood from the tree trunks he and others have felled in the forest.
Next to him, Lamin, a 30-year-old originally from The Gambia, is wielding a large metal hook and a hammer, jamming the logs into position against a circular saw.
"I used to be a boxer," he says. "I was angry every day, stressed. But since I've come here, I am calm and relaxed.
"I feel like I'm in training - practical job training, but also training to be a better person. It's like a test they are giving me and when I go outside and try to live a normal life I will see if I have passed."
The atmosphere on the island does seem relaxed, almost to the point of sleepiness. An occasional prisoner in jeans and sweatshirt cycles past fields of grazing sheep. There is not a raised voice.
For the prison's governor, Arne Kvernvik-Nilsen, Bastoey is a personal project, the embodiment of an ethos in which he has the belief of the evangelical.
"If this were a holiday camp for criminals, what's the problem if I can show you the result?" he asks.
The result he refers to is a 16% re-offending rate among former Bastoey inmates. It is by far the lowest in Europe, quite possibly the lowest in the world.
"This island is supposed to be as much as possible like an ordinary small, local Norwegian community. This prison is in many ways the opposite of an ordinary prison. Here, as an inmate, you have to be in charge of your own life, take responsibility.
"I do not believe in this old way of thinking that you should respect me. In order for you to do this, you first have to learn to know what respect is, starting with respect for yourself. Then I can start to talk to you about why you should respect me and my neighbour and your neighbour too."
It would be hard to attack the prison on grounds of expense. Bastoey is significantly cheaper to run than conventional penal institutions. Its proportion of guards to inmates is much lower.
At night, it is normal for four or five unarmed guards to be in charge of 114 inmates. And costs are kept down by the fact that prisoners are expected to manage so many aspects of their own lives, from rubbish collection to cooking and cleaning.
One tattooed inmate asks for a moment to comb his hair and change into a smarter shirt before he is filmed giving a tour of his living quarters with a touching sense of domestic pride.
Asked if he can cook, he replies: "Of course. All Norwegian men can cook." The humanising effects of Bastoey have an unnerving tendency to speak for themselves.