Der Spiegel takes a look at the resort-like island that houses some of Norway’s most hardened convicts — they are given a wide berth to do as they please, but must complete their work and behave civilly, or risk being shipped back to regular prison. Is this how criminal rehabilitation could be done here?
No bars. No walls. No armed guards. The prison island of Bastøy in Norway is filled with some of the country’s most hardened criminals. Yet it emphasizes self-control instead of the strictly regulated regimens common in most prisons. For some inmates, it is more than they can handle.
The warden is a man who deals in freedom. He is also a visionary. He wants the men here to live as if they were living in a village, to grow potatoes and compost their garbage, and he wants the guards and the prisoners to respect each other. What he doesn’t want is a camera in the supermarket. He doesn’t want bars on the windows, or walls or locked doors.
The inmates on Bastøy have been convicted of crimes such as murder, robbery, drug dealing, fraud, violent crime and petty theft. “We don’t pick out the mild cases,” says Nilsen. Some inmates serve their entire sentences on the island. Murderers can only apply to be transferred to the island once they have served two-thirds of their sentences elsewhere. Some 115 prisoners live on Bastøy, and those who wish to stay are required to work and integrate into the community. Anyone caught drinking alcohol or fighting is thrown out.
The ferry operates on a regular schedule. It would be possible to swim to the mainland or find a boat in the summer, and the ocean often freezes over in the winter. The idea is that the prisoners should have an incentive to stay, and that they are still there when the count is taken — four times a day.
A piece of driftwood hangs on the wall. Someone painted a fish, a sailboat and seagull onto the driftwood, and the words “Bastøy — Gangster’s Paradise.”
This paradise has been around for 20 years — and has a warden who loves statistics. The numbers, after all, prove him right. Only 16 percent of the prisoners in this island jail become repeat offenders in the first two years after leaving Bastøy as compared with 20 percent for Norway as a whole. In Germany, where recidivism is measured after three years, the rate is 50 percent.
The warden also feels vindicated because there has never been a murder or a suicide on the island — and because no one left Bastøy last winter even though the sea ice was frozen solid.
In Norway, about a third of prisons are open like Bastøy, and parliament has now ruled that there will be more open prisons in the future. Most people think this is a good idea.