Sensible sentencing Norwegian style

Saturday 5 October 2013, 1:54PM



The Guardian newspaper has published a couple of excellent articles by former prisoner Erwin James describing the huge differences between prisons in Britain and Norway.  James served 20 years of a life sentence in a British prison before his release in August 2004.


Here's a link to a similar story broadcast on DW-TV: A Liberal Prison System - Bastoy Island

The two Guardian stories compare differences between the two prison systems.  The following is a summary and adaptation to make the comparison more applicable to New Zealand.

Humane treatment of prisoners

Bastoy is prison on a 2.6 sq km island a couple of miles off the coast in the Oslo fjord, 46 miles south-east of Norway’s capital.  Long term prisoners can apply for a transfer to Bastoy island, when they have five years left to serve on their sentence. All kinds of offenders, including murderers and rapists, are accepted as long as they have a determination to live a crime-free life on release.

Prisoners on Bastoy are treated very differently to the way prisoners in New Zealand are treated. They live in small, brightly painted wooden bungalows dotted around the island.  Each bungalow accommodates up to six people. Every man has his own room and they share kitchen and other facilities.  Phones are available so prisoners can call family and friends.  There are private family rooms where conjugal relations are allowed.

Prisoners on Bastoy all have to work. They tend sheep, cows and chickens, and grow fruit and vegetables. Other jobs are available in the laundry; in the stables looking after the horses that pull the island's cart transport; in the bicycle repair shop, (many of the prisoners have their own bikes, bought with their own money); on ground maintenance or in the timber workshop.  The men earn the equivalent of £6 a day and are given a food allowance of around £70 a month to buy provisions from the island's well-stocked mini-supermarket to cook their own breakfasts and evening meals. Only one meal a day is provided in the dining hall.

Life for the prisoners is as normal as it is possible to be in a prison.  One inmate described life on the island like this:

"It's like living in a village, a community. Everybody has to work. But we have free time so we can do some fishing, or in summer we can swim off the beach. We know we are prisoners but here we feel like people."

In other words, despite the seriousness of their crimes, loss of liberty is the only punishment.

Staff attitudes and training

The 70 staff and officers on the island take a pride in their work. It takes three years to train to be a prison guard in Norway. In New Zealand, it takes only nine weeks; the main requirement for the job is a willingness “to follow orders and set procedures” and the only qualification required is a driver’s licence. 

The attitude in Norway is summed up by former Bastoy manager, Arne Nilsen who describes his prison philosophy like this:

“I run this prison like a small society. I give respect to the prisoners who come here and they respond by respecting themselves, each other and this community.

“It’s an arena of developing responsibility. (In other countries) we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking. But in the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings."

It works

It is this humanitarian philosophy that Nilsen believes is responsible for the success of Bastoy.  But all Norwegian prisons work on the same principles - which have produced the lowest reoffending rates in Europe at less than 30%.  For prisoners coming out of Bastoy, the re-offending rate is even lower at 16%. Compare these figures with New Zealand where the re-offending rate is 70%.

There’s another significant point of difference. New Zealand locks up twice as many of its citizens. Both countries have a similar population but Norway has less than 4,000 prisoners compared with 8,500 in New Zealand.   This is expensive - each prisoner costs the New Zealand taxpayer $90,000 a year and Corrections total budget is over $1 billion a year. Erwin James says “this amounts to a huge investment in failure – and a total lack of consideration for potential future victims of released prisoners.”


Bastoy manager, Arne Nilsen is well aware of the impact of crime on victims but is doubtful that tough prison conditions provide much consolation. He notes that:

“In the UK, (NZ) and many other countries, we still think quite short-term, wanting to inflict revenge on criminals, wanting them to suffer for what they have done. But in most countries nearly all prisoners are going to be released. So what happens to them when they are in prison is very important.

“For victims, there will never be a prison that is tough, or hard, enough. But they need another type of help – support to deal with the experience, rather than the government simply punishing the offender in a way that the victim rarely understands and that does very little to help heal their wounds. Politicians should be strong enough to be honest about this issue."

It’s hard to see these humanitarian attitudes to prisoners being adopted in New Zealand. The media are obsessed with murder and mayhem; politicians and the public alike have become victims of the vindictive penal populism promoted by Garth McVicar and the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust.  Compare this with public attitudes to prison issues in Norway. According to one prison officer at Bastoy 90% of the Norwegian public have no interest, "so long as people come out better".  Now that sounds like a strategy for some truely sensible sentencing.

80% of countries use torture – New Zealand is one of them