Here is what a good prison looks like…

Are these the world’s two most humane prisons?

Halden Prison art work. Source: Trond Isaksen / Statsbygg

Halden Prison art work. Source: Trond Isaksen / Statsbygg


Would you allow prisoners to have flat-screen TVs, wear their own clothes and cook their own food? What about having access to sports facilities, recording studios, saunas and beaches?

Two Norwegian prisons – Halden and Bastoy – allow all that and more.

There is an expectation in Norway that nearly every prisoner will be returned to society. The main aim is to reduce re-offending rates by building prisoners’ self-esteem and reforming their lives.

It also helps that there are no life sentences and 90 per cent of prisoners serve one year or less.

But what exactly does a good prison look like?


Halden Prison, Norway. Source: Trond Isaksen/Statsbygg on

Halden Prison, Norway. Source: Trond Isaksen/Statsbygg on


The world’s most humane prison?

Halden ­is one of Norway’s highest-security jails holding rapists, murderers and paedophiles. It opened in 2010 with a firm focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Prisoners are unlocked at 7.30am and locked up for the night at 8.30pm. They are encouraged to attend work and educational activities with a daily payment for those who leave their cell.

Here are some eye-catching facts about Halden:

  • There are 340 staff members for the 245 male inmates (including teachers and healthcare workers).
  • Every prison guard has completed a two-year university course with an emphasis on human rights, ethics and the law.
  • Inmates can buy ingredients to make their own meals.
  • There is a well-stocked house for prisoners to receive overnight visits from their families.
  • There is a sports centre focused on team sports, especially football.
  • Every cell has a flatscreen television, its own toilet with a door, a shower and towels. Prisoners have their own fridges, cupboards, desks and huge, unbarred windows overlooking a forest.


Halden Prison cell

Halden Prison cell. Source: Trond Isaksen/Statsbygg on


Are Høidal, Halden’s prison governor, says Norwegian prisons try to ensure that inmates are well-equipped to re-enter society:

“We look at what kind of neighbour you want to have when they come out. If you stay in a box for a few years, then you are not a good person when you come out. If you treat them hard… well, we don’t think that treating them hard will make them a better man. We don’t think about revenge in the Norwegian prison system. We have much more focus on rehabilitation.

The regime is undoubtedly expensive – approximately £320 a night. A year in Halden costs the state around £116,000, while the average cost of a place in the UK is £45,000.

But Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in Europe, just 20 per cent after two years compared with around 50 per cent in England.

Here is a brief video about life inside the world’s most humane prison:


A self-sustaining village prison

Founded in 1982, Bastoy Prison is located on a one-square-mile island. It holds 115 prisoners – men serving time for murder, rape and trafficking heroin, among other crimes.

Some prisoners live in wooden cottages and others at “The Big House,” a white mansion that looks like a university dormitory. Prisoners must report to work from 8:30am to 3:30pm weekdays. Some garden; others farm. Some chop down trees; others tend to a team of horses.

At dinner, menu choices include “fish balls with white sauce, with shrimps” and “everything from chicken con carne to salmon.”

But once again, the emphasis is on rehabilitation and returning prisoners to their communities.

  • Only 16 per cent of prisoners reoffend within two years of being released.
  • Prisoners can wear whatever clothes they want. Even guards aren’t dressed in uniform.
  • No one wears shackles or electronic monitoring bracelets.
  • For their work, inmates are paid about $10 per day. Additionally, they get a monthly stipend of about $125 for their food. They can save money or spend it on odds and ends in a local shop.
  • Inmates buy goods in the local shop and then cook for themselves at home. Many live in small houses that have full kitchens. Others have access to shared cooking space.
  • Bastoy has its own beach, fishing spots, sauna and tennis courts.


Halden Prison recording studio. Source: Trond Isaksen/Statsbygg on

Halden Prison recording studio. Source: Trond Isaksen/Statsbygg on


Gerhard Ploeg, a senior adviser at the Ministry of Justice, which oversees Norway’s corrections system, says:

“There is overwhelming evidence that rehabilitation works much better than deterrence as a means of reducing re-offending. It’s all in the name of reintegration,” he added. “You won’t be suddenly one day standing on the street with a plastic bag of things you had when you came in.”

Of course, there are factors in Norway’s favour such as having a smaller, more homogeneous prison population and a strong welfare state to support inmates when they leave jail.

It also helps that criminal justice policy rarely enters political debate. Decisions about best practices are left to professionals in the field while in the US and UK politicians engage in a “tougher on crime” arms race.

Here is a CNN report on Bastoy Prison.


A Scandinavian prison model for Scotland?

Alec Spencer, convenor of the Scottish Consortium on Crime and Criminal Justice, has called for Scotland to follow the Scandinavian model of small, local prisons:

Regimes are more effective when smaller and more intimate. Larger prisons may be cheaper to run for the prison service, but the higher cost to society comes with them being less effective in changing lives.

Scotland has taken a step in the right direction by scrapping a proposed £75m super-prison for women but as the table below shows, it has a long way to go to match Scandinavia:



Do you know of any other examples of a good prison? If so, please email us: ukprisonwatch at gmail dot com


TWITTER: @prisonwatchuk

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s