How Norway turns criminals into good neighbours
Author: BBC Correspondent
Source: BBC (https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-48885846)
It is no surprise that Scandinavian countries often find themselves atop most rankings for human development indices or happiness quotients. Yet this is a fascinating story in the BBC about how Norway treats its prisoners or rather prepares its convicted citizens while in prison to resume a normal life upon completion of the sentence. Like the article says “In Norway, all will be released – there are no life sentences…So we are releasing your neighbour….If we treat inmates like animals in prison, then we will release animals on to your street.” From providing a comfortably kitted cell to allowing prisoners to pursue professional courses to allowing a couple of days with family at a chalet within the prison complex to having half of the prison staff as women, Norway’s prisons are intent on rehabilitating its citizens than treating jail time as just punishment. Indeed, it is showing results – repeat offence rates in Norway have dropped to as low as 20% vs 50% in the UK as the author notes.
“every inmate has his own cell, which comes with an en suite toilet and shower room, a fridge, desk, flat TV screen and forest views … immaculate sofas and a well-equipped kitchenette in the communal common room”
“In Norway, the punishment is just to take away someone’s liberty. The other rights stay. Prisoners can vote, they can have access to school, to health care; they have the same rights as any Norwegian citizen. Because inmates are human beings. They have done wrong, they must be punished, but they are still human beings.”
In the on-site garage, two inmates in overalls are tinkering with the wheel arch of a car, brushing out mud and carefully re-fixing bolts. Like most of the prisoners here, they leave their cells at 07:30 each morning and are at work by 08:15. Apart from one hour’s rest in their cells during the afternoon, to coincide with the guards’ break, they are not locked in again until 20:30 at night.
The idea is to give them a sense of normality and to help them focus on preparing for a new life when they get out. Many inmates will be released from Halden as fully qualified mechanics, carpenters and chefs.
“We start planning their release on the first day they arrive,” explains Hoidal, as we walk through to the carpentry workshop where several inmates are making wooden summer houses and benches to furnish a new prison being built in the south of Norway.
“In Norway, all will be released – there are no life sentences,” he reminds me.
“So we are releasing your neighbour,” he continues. “If we treat inmates like animals in prison, then we will release animals on to your street.”
In the graphic design studio, quietly spoken Fredrik is putting the finishing touches to his striking design for the front cover of the prison’s cookery book. Sentenced to 15 years for murder, Fredrik says he has struggled to come to terms with what he has done and the pain he has caused. Going on a silent three-week retreat within the prison has helped him achieve peace, he adds, and to reflect on his past.
He is not boasting when he tells me that he’s achieved a diploma in graphic design since he arrived at Halden, nor that he’s passed eight other exams at A and B grade and is now studying the Norwegian equivalent of A-level maths and physics; he is just keen that I should understand he is using his time inside wisely for a projected future outside the curved wall.
“If you don’t have opportunities and you are just locked in a cage, you don’t become a good citizen,” Fredrik says as he adjusts the colours on one of the photos on his screen. “Here there are good opportunities, you can have a diploma and when you come out, you can maybe get a stable job and that’s important.”
Normalising life behind bars (not that there are any bars on the windows at Halden) is the key philosophy that underpins the Norwegian Correctional service. At Halden, this means not only providing daily routines but ensuring family contact is maintained too. Once every three months, inmates with children can apply to a “Daddy In Prison” scheme which, if they pass the necessary safeguarding tests, means they can spend a couple of nights with their partner, sons and daughters in a cosy chalet within the prison grounds.
“Lots of toys and children’s books,” points out prison officer Linn Andreassen as she unlocks the gate and shows me the little play garden. I note the double bed in the main bedroom, flanked by a cot.
Linn is a slight young woman in her early 30s. She’s been in the prison service for 11 years already, 10 of which have been spent at Halden – almost half of the staff at this category A prison are female. But Linn assures me she has sounded the personal alarm that all Norwegian prison officers carry only twice in her career, and insists she has never felt sexually threatened.
“It’s normal to have women in society,” she shrugs. “So the guys here need to cope with that. They need to respect not just the uniform but the person, the woman as well. And we respect them, so they respect us.”