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How Norway’s calm, cushy prisons put Britain’s model to shame

Tootie is serving a five-year jail sentence after being caught dealing drugs in Oslo. Yet he smiles as he tells me about his time in Halden, a maximum-security prison that sits in a forest of pine, silver birch and spruce near the Swedish border.

“It was like a vacation. You had a shop, a big library, a nice kitchen to cook your own meals. You could use the gym twice a week. You can play football – sometimes the guards would join in if you needed another player. I had a good time there.”

He said the prison – which holds 227 inmates including murderers, rapists and paedophiles – felt very friendly. “The guards are good. If you behave like an asshole, they behave like assholes. But if you behave well, the guards are nice.”

Halden cost £138m to build, opened 14 years ago and has won design awards for its low-slung minimalist style, often compared with a chic hotel. Each cell has its own toilet and shower, along with a desk, flat-screen television, fridge, and view over the blueberry woods that hide thick walls.

This is the flagship of Norway’s criminal justice system. It is calm, cushy and quiet compared with Britain’s crammed prisons. And it is at the core of the world’s best incarceration system when it comes to stopping people from committing crime.

Offenders sent to jail – and this is a country that imprisons citizens at a rate almost three times lower than the UK – find a system based on the idea that loss of liberty is the punishment, so prison life should try to reflect life outside to aid rehabilitation.

Inmates decide when to wake up, what to wear and cook for dinner, whether to work or study.

And prisons rely on a concept of “dynamic security” – which revolves around trust and strong bonds with staff rather than control, locks and shackles – to the extent that many lower security units do not bother with walls or fences.

A similar sleeping cell on the second of two floors where Anders Behring Breivik serves his custodial sentence in the Ringerike prison is pictured on December 14, 2023 in Tyristrand, North-West of Oslo, Norway. Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing extremist who killed 77 people in 2011 and is now "suicidal" according to his lawyer, appears in court on January 8, 2024 in his lawsuit against Norway over his prison conditions. (Photo by Ole Berg-Rusten / NTB / AFP) / Norway OUT (Photo by OLE BERG-RUSTEN/NTB/AFP via Getty Images)
A sleeping cell where Anders Behring Breivik serves his custodial sentence in the Ringerike prison (PHOTO: Ole Berg-Rusten/ NTB / AFP)

The contrast with Britain could not be more great as our prison population explodes – with chronic overcrowding in outdated institutions, police told to arrest fewer crooks, and inmates being released up to 70 days early in desperate efforts to create space.

This intensifying crisis behind bars is brushed aside by both Conservatives and Labour in the general election as they jostle to look toughest on crime. But should Britain follow Norway by overhauling its system to jail fewer people in similar institutions?

Tootie, 30, typifies their approach as he progresses along the path to freedom. We met in Oslo where he is studying for a college-style diploma and living in a halfway house, part of the preparation for re-entry to society, with one year still to serve.

His Norwegian mother died of an overdose when he was young, while his Gambian father sold heroin. After adoption, he was raised in a low-income part of Oslo, starting to deal drugs himself aged 17. “I was never a gangster – I just loved money,” he said.

He vows not to start dealing again after his third and longest prison sentence, saying he wants to work with young people so they can learn from his experiences. “I don’t want to go back to prison,” he told me. “I have changed in that I accept what I did was wrong.”

Tootie has found prison challenging despite the amenities, seeing a therapist due to depression at one point. He describes Norway’s progressive approach using the language of the street: “You give me respect and I’ll give you respect.”

Under this liberal regime, he was allowed into a pub to watch his team Manchester United win the FA Cup. But he did not drink, since he knew that he might be tested on his return – and if he failed, he could be sent back to a maximum-security prison.

They are not all the same as Halden, the planet’s most humane top-security prison. He spent a grim time locked up most of the day in Oslo, a 173-year-old institution where he saw distressed inmates cut themselves and smear walls with their faeces.

Yet Halden is far from the only Norwegian prison that might be mistaken on first glance for a holiday destination – although as one expert and other offenders told me, these are gilded cages for inmates who must still follow often-strict rules.

“If you’ve had 50 years of normal life like me, it is a big shock,” said Anna, a middle-aged woman jailed 18 months ago for having an improper relationship in a public service setting. “It is far from nirvana in reality.”

She is concluding her sentence in a small open prison holding only 18 inmates. “I am not a very patient person, but I’ve learned to be patient in prison. There are no fences. But I know that if I escape, if I don’t follow the rules, I might go straight to high security. There are very few escapes.”

Synove Nygaard Andersen, a sociologist at the University of Oslo, said it was easy to be fooled by the nice buildings, facilities and grounds. “We don’t understand what it feels like to be stopped from moving around as you want or being only allowed to call your family for 30 minutes each week.”

She is part of a research team following a pilot of their system in a Pennsylvania prison. “Some of the officers were very sceptical at the start but now they like it a lot,” she said. “You can take the ideals and embed them in their local environment.”

So does Andersen think Norway’s model could be adopted in Britain? “For sure. A lot of it is to do with treating people like people – and that is free. Warehousing is cheaper than giving people the chance to feel safe and change. But it can be done.”

Norway’s prison system used to be among the worst in Europe with riots, violence and minimal efforts at rehabilitation, resulting in more than two-thirds of released inmates reoffending within two years.

Then came reforms that started three decades ago amid agonised debate after two guards were killed. These reduced sentences with a usual maximum term of 21 years, widened use of communal punishments, sought to imprison people close to families and refocused prisons on rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

Among the key measures was improving the motivation, status and training of staff.

“We do not train them, we educate them – this is extremely important,” said Berit Johnsen, head of research at University College of Norwegian Correctional Service. “You need well-educated staff that understand the importance of humane prisons.”

Now it has the world’s lowest rate of recidivism, with fewer than one in five people re-offending within two years – in contrast with Britain, which has seen its prison population almost double over this time as politicians demand longer sentences.

British recidivism rates are more than twice as high as in Norway as inmates – many struggling with autism, learning disabilities or mental illness – emerge from overwhelmed prisons seeing record rises in violence, suicide, and self-harm.

The view in Norway – and the tone of political debate – is radically different. Almost everyone in the country will tell you how offenders go to court to be punished, then go to prison to become better neighbours before returning to their communities.

Arne Kvernvik Nilsen spent almost half a century working with prisoners – including a stint as part-time prison chaplain in Lewes and five years as governor of a low-security unit located on an island in a fjord, where he helped drive forward Norway’s reforms.

“Norwegian prisons were much like those in Britain 30 years ago. It was the same system. But what is the point of punishing people when it’s just for revenge?” said Nilsen. “The average sentence is three and a half months,[ so many are soon back in society.

“The traditional idea of prison is worse than a kindergarten: people are locked up, ordered around and then released back onto the streets. The way we saw prison was a total failure for society and victims of crime. It was terrible.”

“I would stress responsibility: they were responsible for offences they had done but also for their time in prison. If you treat a human being as an animal, they adapt to behaviour of animals. But if you respect them as human beings, they can change.”

Nilsen calls himself an Anglophile, but fears Britain is building problems for the future. “How is it possible to believe you can lock people up in conditions like that and expect them to be changed when they are released? It just does not work.

“I do not say that we should not punish people. The issue is how to respond to crime for the benefit of all society.”

This approach does not come cheap. The average annual cost to taxpayers of each prison place in England and Wales is now £50,000, which is about half the cost of holding a prisoner in Halden, the same as the most expensive prisons in Britain.

But Norway jails far fewer offenders – with anyone serving less than six months offered electronic monitoring – and has significantly lower crime rates. One recent study for the Red Cross in Norway estimated that the savings to society for each 25-year-old diverted from crime amounts to £2.4m over their lifetime – and £1.1m, even if they remain on benefits.

Charities such as the Red Cross and WayBack – founded by Oslo inmates 22 years ago – are funded by the state to help the correctional system find homes and jobs, while providing support with social activities such as cinema trips, cycling and sailing.

“We are building a bridge between prison and society,” said Fabian Wahl Sandvold, project adviser at WayBack. “Do you want someone who is stressed, angry, who has been in a chaotic and violent environment as your neighbour – or do you want someone who has learned from the past and wants to be a good member of society?’

I was struck to discover Sandvold spent three summers working in a prison while studying criminology at university – as do some trainee lawyers, police officers and social workers. “I learned that there are many types of people incarcerated – and most are friendly people who are not at all proud of their crimes,” he said.

Like other experts, he fears their system has suffered in recent years, with budget cuts and a shift towards bigger prisons. There is also intense debate over youth violence, inflamed by alarm over the gang shootings seen in Sweden.

And if fewer crooks go to prison, those in cells can be tougher to rehabilitate. “The bad asses, the sickest, the most damaged, stay inside so there’s more violence,” said Stian Estenstad, a former prison officer working with Oslo’s Red Cross.

But as he told me, Norway took the bold step of moving from terrible prisons to a model system admired around the world, showing that systems can change as well as people involved in crime. So when will Britain learn this obvious lesson?

* Names of prisoners have been changed.

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