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Tagged In:  Probation

If you were to visit Halden Prison in Norway, you might be mistaken for thinking you were entering university halls of residence rather than a penal institution.


With no bars on the windows, the cells feature flat screen televisions and en-suite bathrooms, while there is an on-site activity centre offering classes as varied as car repair, cooking and carpentry. Inmates have access to fully-stocked kitchens complete with knives, as well as a recording studio where they can learn to make their own music. Visitors are struck by the convivial relationships between prisoners and guards.

Elsewhere, Norway has its own ‘prison island’, Bastøy – but this is no Alcatraz. In what is the largest low-security prison in the country, inmates live in houses rather than cells, and have access to televisions, kitchens and private bedrooms. Prisoners have their own jobs, and must report for duty twice a day. But they also have access to their own beach, and can spend their free time looking after farm animals, skiing and playing tennis. Only five of the prison guards remain on the island overnight.

It's easy to see that rehabilitation is firmly at the forefront of the Norwegian penal ethos, with the prison environment resembling a ‘normal’ life outside as much as possible.

As the Norway Correctional Service (NCS) puts it: “The punishment is the restriction of liberty; no other rights have been removed. Therefore, the sentenced offender has the same rights as all others who live in Norway.”

It adds: “The possibility to implement the principle of normality fully is, of course, limited by reasons of security, order in the institution and personnel, infrastructural and financial resources. Yet the basic principle is there, and deviation from it will need to be based on argumentation. You need a reason to deny a sentenced offender his rights, not to grant them.”

Norwegian prisoners are placed in the lowest possible security regime, depending on the crime they have committed. If starting their incarceration at a high security level, they will work their way towards moving into a low security environment, then will often spend time in a halfway house before their eventual release. Dedicated officers help them find education and employment opportunities to take up after their sentence has been served.

“The more closed a system is, the harder it will be to return to freedom,” says the NCS.

While some may be shocked by such a relaxed approach, which is in stark contrast to others around the world, this open-style system certainly seems to be working in terms of recidivism levels. Just 20 percent of Norway’s former prisoners go on to reoffend within five years; in the UK, that figure stands at 46 percent, while in the United States the tally rises to more than 75 percent.

For Norway, the message is clear – rehabilitation is key. The country believes that while those who commit crimes must be punished by losing their liberty, they must also be treated as individuals who will one day return to society.

The system may have its sceptics, but advocates will stress that Norway’s recidivism figures must surely speak for themselves.

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