Norway’s Alternative Prisons, Part Of Global Push To Innovate On Inmates

A new light is shining on the Norwegian penal system as terrorist Anders Behring Breivik demands (even) better treatment.

A mural on the wall of Halden prison in Norway
A mural on the wall of Halden prison in Norway
Julianne McShane

A three-room suite with sun-drenched windows, a treadmill and state-of-the-art electronics â€" no, this isn't some prized real estate for sale or an Airbnb listing, but rather a description of the prison cell of Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing terrorist who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011.

The conditions may sound soft for a cold-blooded killer, and there is even more public outrage this week as Breivik has been granted a hearing after charging the state with inhumane treatment for keeping him in solitary confinement as he serves a 21-year sentence in Skien in southern Norway.

But beyond the unique circumstances of the Breivik case, Norway is a country committed to having a penal system focused on rehabilitation rather than pure punishment, according to The Guardian. In one facility, Bastoy Prison, the detainees live freely in one of a grouping of small homes on a private island. A maximum-security facility in Halden has been singled out for its policy of recreating life on the outside as an attempt to better integrate inmates when they are released.

The search for alternative correctional systems is by no means limited to Norway in a world where some 10.3 million people are currently being held in prisons, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research.

While the vast majority of inmates are still locked up behind traditional steel bars, others enjoy the perks of being prisoners in an era when a focus on incarceration reform is pushing some prison officials to rethink standard approaches to punishment: Some French prisoners hold keys to their own cells, inmates at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines take mandatory dance classes, while the Justizzentrum Prison in Austria was built with attention to maximizing the natural light for inmates.

Administrators are finding that alternative forms of incarceration â€" and oftentimes, those that are specifically guided by an emphasis on mutual respect between prisoners and supervisors â€" result in happier, less violent prisons. In the ongoing fight against recidivism, the logic for society as a whole is a truism that reads like a paradox: Better living conditions for the prisoner increase the chance that he won't come back.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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