August 3rd, 2011
02:35 PM ET

Inside Norway's progressive prison system


Last year, Vice visited Norway to get a firsthand look at the country's famously progressive prison system. We'd heard stories of lax treatment of hardened criminals, and the most sensational (and entertaining) reports evoked images of wardens and inmates spending their days arm in arm, whistling nursery rhymes while skipping through fields of flowers.

In reality, though, Norway's approach is a radical version of the principles that fuel prison systems around the world: punish the crimes, rehabilitate the offender. America, of course, leans more heavily on the former. In Norway, where life sentences don't exist, and even the worst offenders usually serve no more than 21 years, the focus is distinctly on the latter.

The jail we visited, Bastøy Prison, is located about an hour from Oslo, on the small, scenic Bastøy island. Norway's unique philosophy is evident from the get-go. In order to reach the prison, visitors are ferried to the island on a small ship manned almost exclusively by prisoners themselves. They dock the boat on the mainland, greet visitors (mostly family members, and the occasional gawking foreign journalist), and help them from dock to ship. It's enough to make you wonder why they don't bolt the moment they hit the mainland - until you get to the prison itself.

See the rest of The Vice Guide to Norwegian Prisons at VBS.TV

At first blush, Bastøy is more summer camp than correctional facility. Swimmers enjoy the island's beaches while others stroll the island's farms, tending to horses and taking care of daily chores. Prisoners bunk in shared cabins that dot the island, and large soccer fields sit between the clusters of housing. None of the trappings of a typical American prison are evident: no walls, no crowded cells and no armed guards. Instead, a quiet calm pervades the island. It's easy to forget that you're amongst some of Norway's most hardened criminals.

We spent our day at Bastøy speaking with both prison officials and inmates, all of whom stressed that in order to successfully change a criminal, an institution like Bastøy is critical: somewhere to reflect, interact and learn new skills. Many prisoners and prison officials reminded us that in Norway, where everyone on this island would one day be integrated back into society, rehabilitation was necessary. Indeed, it often seemed like folks we spoke to were reading off a script - and they certainly may have been - but it was hard to argue with results (Norway has a significantly lower recidivism rate than the United States). We left thinking that Norway might just have it right.

Now, in light of the July terror attacks that left 77 people dead, can Norway's humane approach to prison truly reform mass murderers? And - more importantly - should it? These are questions without easy answers, and just some of the many with which Norway is currently grappling.

Editor's note: The staff at has been intrigued by the journalism of Vice, an independent media company and Web site based in Brooklyn, New York.VBS.TV is Vice's broadband television network. The reports, which are produced solely by Vice, reflect a very transparent approach to journalism, where viewers are taken along on every step of the reporting process. We believe this unique reporting approach is worthy of sharing with our readers.

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Topics: Europe • Law • Terrorism

soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    I doubt if convicted foreigners, who don't have any stay permit in Norway are among the inmates on the island. Drug traffickers from overseas would be deported after having served the sentence. This integrational therapy is only applied on inmates, who stay in Norway after release. The smaller the population of a country is, the more each individual counts and the authorities make an effort to help.

    August 3, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  2. Michelle G

    America's prison system is deeply flawed an ineffective. I would like to see the US try an approach more like Norway's but I think vengeance is still too much of the American psyche for it to really be acceptable to the American public.

    I hope that this terrorist attack in Norway doesn't make them lose their senses like the US did after 9/11. No system is perfect, and there are always going to be those anomalies in society that periodically cause problems but that is no reason to throw out the whole system. There are good systems and there are better systems and I think Norway's is one of the better ones.

    August 3, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Reply
    • Tobias

      Sorry, but if a person mercilessly kills one person, let alone 77, they don't deserve anything remotely close to that prison.

      August 3, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Reply
  3. Jonathan

    This is out of control. It's called capital punishment for a reason. These criminals are basically on an entended male bonding trip.

    August 3, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  4. Kristinn Hegna, Oslo, Norway

    It is true that Norway's punitive system is to a large extent built on an idea of rehabilitation rather than vengeance. The prison at Bastøy however, is not representative for prisons in Norway. The inmates there are carefully selected, in the belief that they in particular will have the ability to make use of the corrective treatment and rehabilitation at Bastøy.

    As a country of less than 5 mill inhabitants with a drastically lower criminal rate than the US, we fortunately do not need the number of prisons that we see in the US. Problems are less severe, ideas of rehabilitation is more feasible. Ullersmo landsfengsel (in Norwegian – use Google translate) is the maximum security prison in Norway. I can assure you that the regime there is nowhere near what the inmates experience at Bastøy.

    In the case of Norway's recent terror attac, it is widely discussed in Norway what a suitable punishment would be. While many on a private note might want to see him dead, capital punishment is not considered. However, most probably, he will be sentenced to the longest jail punishment available. This could be 21 or 31 years, BUT in addition, he would be sentenced to "sikring" for as long as the judge see reasonable. As long as he is considered dangerous for society or otherwise considered not suitable for release, his sentence will be prolonged. This time may be done in prison or in a high security psychiatric ward, if he's deemed with a psychiatric illness.

    I'm quite convinced that he will not be released from prison/detention during his lifetime. He might also have to be protected from other inmates' fury, and might have to do his time in isolation from others. I don't think this will be any better for him than if he should have lost his life, actually.

    August 4, 2011 at 4:12 am | Reply

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