If you have been online over the last few days, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a link to a story by CNN about a prison facility in southern Norway. Situated on a picturesque island of Bastoy just off the Norwegian coast, the prison is noteworthy for both its bucolic setting and the almost country club atmosphere that it fosters.
There are no bars or barbed wire fences at Bastoy. The few guards on the island are unarmed. Prisoners are free to leave the little cottages that serve as “jail cells” at their leisure. There are tennis courts, a sauna, and a beach for suntanning in the summer. Neither inmates nor guards are issued uniforms.
The prison essentially works as a small, isolated village, with most of the inmates working on the island farm. Dinner is provided, but each inmate is responsible for their own breakfast and/or lunch, which they cook themselves using supplies they purchase from the small stipend they receive for their work.
Bastoy is not just a prison for minor offenses and short terms, however. Those incarcerated here are guilty of a wide range of crimes, including murder and rape. Even so, there is no segregation amongst the prison population, and no added security for inmates convicted of more violent crimes.
The island could easily be mistaken for a vacation destination rather than a prison. But does it work? Officials point out that the recidivism rate at Bastoy is 16 percent – below the national average of 20 percent, and well short of the rates in the United States, where inmates are re-incarcerated nearly half of the time.
“If we have created a holiday camp for criminals here, so what?” says Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, the prison director and a former minister. “We should reduce the risk of reoffending, because if we don’t, what’s the point of punishment, except for leaning toward the primitive side of humanity?”
Obviously, there are important cultural and demographic differences between Norway and the United States, and the possibility of a prison system like Norway’s being adopted in the U.S. is pretty much non-existent. Even many in Norway are questioning the wisdom of such an approach – particularly as the trial for Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian ultranationalist who has admitted to killing 77 youth last summer, is nearing conclusion.
Are there lessons to be learned from the Bastoy approach? Is the focus on reentry something that can be emulated on some level here in the United State? Can it be done without sacrificing security or ignoring the victims of crime? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.