Imagine an island prison where inmates are treated with dignity and respect. They are given unrestricted access to education and are allowed to choose a trade and perfect their skills. They earn income commensurate with their work, and participate in a fair economy which teaches financial responsibility. Most grow a significant portion of their own food in personal gardens, but have the option to purchase other items from the island’s supermarket. Prisoners can take part in numerous leisure activities, like swimming, biking, playing in a band, and even enjoying a sunbed during the winter months. They are given unrestricted access to communicating with family and friends, and are allowed weekly visits in private family rooms where conjugal relations are allowed. All inmates are given full medical and psychological treatment, as they themselves see fit. The prisoners are housed in communal, family-like “pods” but have the option of “retreat bungalows” for earned vacations. Sounds more like a fantastical island paradise and not a correctional facility, right? Its actually Norway’s Bastoy Prison, the world’s first self-sustaining ‘Ecological Prison’ that is turning into a de facto social experiment.
The prison’s Governor (akin to the US’s Warden), Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, is a clinical psychologist by profession. Nilsen coined the phrase of Bastoy being “an arena of developing responsibility” and explains further:
“Both society and the individual simply have to put aside their desire for revenge, and stop focusing on prisons as places of punishment and pain. Depriving a person of their freedom for a period of time is sufficient punishment in itself without any need whatsoever for harsh prison conditions. Bastoy takes the opposite approach to a conventional prison where prisoners are given no responsibility, locked up, fed and treated like animals and eventually end up behaving like animals. Here you are given personal responsibility and a job and asked to deal with all the challenges that entails. It is an arena in which the mind can heal, allowing prisoners to gain self-confidence, establish respect for themselves and in so doing respect for others too.”
And the numbers speak for themselves. Although Bastoy houses violent offenders (like murders and rapists), has no cells or bars, and even allows access to weapons for the inmates’ various jobs, there has not been one incident of violence on prison grounds. Most importantly is the fact that Bastoy has the lowest re-offending rate in all of Europe, by a landslide! To put it into perspective, the average re-offending rate across Europe is about 70-75 per cent; whereas, Bastoy rests at 17 per cent!
The prison is very much still in the assessment phase, and comes with its fair share of criticisms in outcome measures. Norway is one of the wealthiest, most sparsely populated, and most stable countries in the world. However, Governor Nilsen, points out that the ultimate goal is for decision-makers of the world to take note of the revolution in rehabilitation that is occurring in that tiny island prison, and at least ponder the idea of change to think of a penal institution being designed to heal rather than harm, and to generate hope instead of despair.
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