What Norwegian Prisons Are Really Like

Norway’s prisons are well-known to the world, and you can often see photos of these “luxury prisons” circulate on social media and the internet in general. Many foreigners find these prisons to be very strange, and I have found it to be a lot of misconception of what serving prison time in Norway is really like.

So, let’s take a close look at what Norwegian prisons are like, how the prison system in general operates, and discuss the pros and cons of treating criminals OK.

The short summary of the Norwegian prison system is that it focuses on rehabilitation the inmates, not punishing them. Their punishment is the loss of freedom, so they will still be treated like humans, and have access to basic needs and some entertainment. Most Norwegians prisons are far from luxury hotels though, and locks the inmates in small cells with a bed, a desk and very limited entertainment.

Hallways in Halden prison
Halden prison is often regarded as the worlds most humane prison. Photo by Justis- og politidepartementet / CC BY 2.0.

Loss of freedom is the main punishment for crimes

Prison sentences are mainly meant to take away the freedom from the criminal, and have that as the main punishment. Norway really embraces this concept, and still keep treating the criminals as human beings who don’t have other rights taken away from them.

This means that inmates will have access to some type of entertainment, are able to have a healthy diet with enough food, feel safe, have the opportunity to live in a clean environment, and are generally able to life a somewhat normal life inside the prison cells.

That said, prisoners will have plenty of regulations while incarnated. It’s not like they can do whatever they like, and will have strict rules to follow.

Norwegian prisons follow a strict daily plan, and the inmates are expected to wake up at a certain time, eat breakfast at a certain time, go to work or school, eat dinner at a certain time, and get locked into their cell at a certain time.

The entrance to Ila Fengsel
The entrance to Ila prison. Photo by Kjetil Ree / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Rehabilitation of inmates in Norway

The main goal of having a humane prison system is to allow the prisoners to change their habits. Many of the criminals who are given a chance to change their life into something better chooses to do so, which is why inmates get offered a job inside the prison, or gets to attend university or high school digitally.

This allows them to be more employable when they get outside of the prison again, by having work experience or an education. Some jobs that are often seen in prisons are metal works, woodworking, cooking (kind of working as the chef for the prison) or other type of physical labor. Some prisons even have an auto shop where some prisoners can work as car mechanics.

All inmates are required to either have an ongoing activity or attend a type of job. You can’t just sit around and watch TV all day, and are expected to do something during regular working hours.

Most prisons have some type of organized activities in the evening as well, and different sports, cooking classes or hobby clubs are popular alternatives. These are optional, so the inmates can choose to just hang out with other inmates, watch TV or chill out in their cell if they want to.

Larvik prison dining room
The dining room in Larvik prison. Photo by Seansie / CC BY 2.0.

What the Norwegian prison cells are like

The Norwegian prison cells are much like what you expect a small dorm room to be. So imagine a small room that barely fits a single bed and a desk, but it gives the inmates a bit of privacy. Some prisons have toilets in the cells, but most have shared toilets and showers.

The cells themselves are really nothing special. Expect a very boring room with a bed, desk and perhaps a small, mounted TV that has a few channels.

How successful in Norway’s prison system really?

Norway’s prison system is very different from many other places in the world, but how does this affect the inmates and the rest of society? Let’s look at what the numbers tell us.

A good number to look at is one called recidivism. Recidivism tells you how many of the inmates that are released from prison ends up getting back into prison within two years after being released. In other words, how many percentage of the inmates actually get rehabilitated and change their behavior after having been in prison.

The rate of recidivism in Norway is around 20%. So only 1 in 5 end up back in prison, while the majority of people (4 in 5) don’t return to prison within a few years.

This is a sharp contract to even the neighbor countries like Sweden with 61% and Denmark with 63%. American prisons tend to have around 60 – 75 % in most states, but it varies a lot by state.

Norwegians are pretty happy with how the prison system works, but aims to get the rate of recidivism even lower.

Some of the famous Norwegian prisons

Certain Norwegian prisons have gotten a bit of an online reputation, so let’s just take a closer look at some of these and clear up some misconception.

Bastøy Prison

Bastøy is a prison island where the inmates are free to roam the island as they see fit. It’s a type of open air prison where the prison operates as its own little society on the island. It looks like a type of summer camp at first glance, but it’s still a prison with rigid rules.

The inmates are given a lot of freedom, and many of the inmates even live in their own small houses on the island. They attend work, tend to farm animals or operate the ferry.

Bastøy is a kind of mythical prison that has captured the interest of the entire world. The inmates are typically violent criminals, murderers or people convicted of sexual crimes, and all inmates on the island serve very long sentences.

There are no prison walls, electric fences or other measurements to prevent the inmates from escaping, and only a single case of a fleeing criminal has been recorded in over 30 years of operations. The reason is actually pretty simple; if you don’t follow the rules on Bastøy, you get sent to a “worse” prison with a lot stricter security. The swim back to mainland Norway is also pretty scary unless you are a good swimmer.

Most inmates who serve a long time dream of getting transferred to Bastøy, so this prison kind of serves as a type of reward for good behavior for heavy criminals that might otherwise not really be motivated by other things.

A fun fact about Bastøy is that the recidivism rates are very low with only 16%, so it clearly does something right.

Bastøy prison. Photo by Grim23 / GNU1.2.

Halden Prison

Halden prisen has been called the most humane prison on earth plenty of times, and people even go as far as calling it a luxury hotel. The prison has things like a modern record studio to let inmates record songs, a restaurant (run by inmates), a climbing hall and some other luxury stuff like that, so it’s easy to see what it got nicknamed as a luxury prison.

This was done in an attempt to try to get the inmates to become “good neighbors”, but the prison is still too new for any conclusion as to whether or not this really gave any improvement over regular Norwegian prisons.

The inmates of Halden prison has a lot of different opportunities, as well as a nice-looking prison, but they are still inmates with limited freedom.

Frequently asked questions about Norwegian prisons and the Norwegian prison system

How effective is Norway’s prison system?

The percentage of prisoners who commit new crimes that send them back to prion are below 20 % after a two year period. This means that 80 % of everyone who has done prison time stops doing crime after being released (or don’t get caught). To put things in perspective, the US’s rate of criminals who get another new prison sentence is around 50 – 75 %, depending on which state it is.

What is the maximum sentence in Norway?

The maximum sentence length in Norway is 21 years, but there are currently political debates about raising it to 25 years. However, you can get a punishment that says you will be in prison until you are rehabilitated and pose no danger to society (forvaring), effectively having the potential of a life sentence.

Does Norway have the death penalty?

Norway does not have a death penalty, and removed this a short while after WWII. The last person who got the death sentence in Norway was Vidkun Quisling, the politician who cooperated with the nazis during the occupation and war. Norway does not have any plans or discussions about reintroducing the death penalty.

Do Norwegian prisoners really have access to a computer with internet?

Yes, many Norwegian prisoners can access the internet via a computer. These are all in the library or school section of the prison, and are heavily censored. Inmates will not be allowed to chat with other people or access social networks. However, it allows the prisoners to catch up on the current news and things like that.

Are there gangs in Norwegian prisons?

Some Norwegian prisons have begun to have small gangs form, often as extensions of gangs from outside the prison. Luckily the gang issue is still pretty small, and the members tend to be split up between different prisons to prevent the rise of more gangs forming inside the prisons.

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