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Serving Not-So-Hard Time In Norway's Surprisingly Posh Prisons

"There are painting, sculpture, cooking, music and tagging workshops"
"There are painting, sculpture, cooking, music and tagging workshops"
Catherine Frammery

HALDEN - “Hello everybody! How are you today!?”

On stage, behind his keyboard, the musician takes in the applause and boisterous chattering, as he presents the members of his band. They kick into a cover of a reggae version of a Jackson Brothers’ song, the lights blink, as the singers move confidently from English to Arabic, Norwegian and even a few words of French. A filmmaker is capturing the scene, while a young radio reporter conducts interviews.

It is hard to imagine that this is all happening inside a high-security facility, an hour outside of Oslo. Indeed, this prison in the town of Halden looks more like a hotel.

“Life sentences do not exist in Norway," notes prison director Are Hoidal. "All these people will be our neighbors one day. Prisoners remain human beings; we take away their freedom, but not their rights.”

Hoidal is getting used to answering questions from surprised researchers, government officials and journalists who come to study the “Norwegian prison model.” He says the starting point is that: “We do not build a modern prison like a prison from the past.”

Clean kitchens and close surveillance

The buildings, designed by the Erik Moller Studio, are clean, bright and with a well-conceived repartition of space. At Halden, the individual cells measure 12 square meters, with a view out on the surrounding forest, and include a shower, toilet, refrigerator, desk and a flat-screen TV.

Every prisoner is part of a unit of 10 inmates, mixing those already convicted and others still facing trial. Every unit has a kitchen, a TV room and a game room, all of which are under tight surveillance by guards who have an observation window on the common room.

There is a special unit for prisoners with a family, composed of a living room, a kitchen and two rooms, for the kids and parents. The shops are well furnished, with prices comparable to the ones ‘on the outside’, unusual for prisons. The library has 5000 books in 20 languages and 1200 DVDs. There are painting, sculpture, cooking, music and tagging workshops. The teachers make sure to talk about “students,” not prisoners.

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Isn't it good, Norwegian wood? - Photo: Trond Isaksen

“Yes, the conditions are good but, we are not free. And yet, I have my family, a house, but it is rare. The others are alone,” explains Glenn “Angel,” 42. He asked to be transferred to Halden in order to pursue a master’s degree in Economics.

The good conditions don’t change the fact that the rules must be well understood. The management says there are no major security problems.

Sports are also key, with a well-equipped gymnasiums and outdoor fields and professional coaches. “But there is no weightlifting, we don’t want Mr. Universe here, it’s not good for the rehabilitation," explains Hoidal. "We prefer team sports.”

Finally, and most of all, the prisoners are busy all day long. Some are studying for diplomas, others work -- all meant to prepare for their future. A reclassification service is in charge of connecting future potential employers with the prisoners when they get out.

In the carpentry training, for example, prisoners build shelves and desks for Oslo’s police department, repaint cars, and change their tires.

These activities, like in any other prison of the world, are not paid well, less than $15 a day. It is enough however to save up for their release, or send money to family members -- often abroad, as 45% of the prisoners in Norway are foreigners.

Still, despite all the positive attention, Norwegians are starting to complain about the price to maintain these facilities. A prison like Halden costs a fortune. The ratio is 1.15 prisoners per staff member, administrative or educational. One prisoner costs $170 000 a year here. In Switzerland's prisons, it is estimated around $133 000.

Though the first studies show the rate of recidivism after two years to be lower than anywhere else for the Norwegian prisoners, the question is far more complex for foreign inmates. They usually have to leave the country once their sentence is served, so why should the state spend so much money on them? Today, there are 250 prisoners in Halden from 42 different countries.

Because of these questions, the government opened in December the first prison only for foreigners at Kongsvinger, north of Oslo. “It is a test, we will see in two years if it worked out,” says the Secretary of State, Kersten Bergersen, who assures that it is "not a second-class prison."

“In Norway, we do not follow the principal of revenge,” Bergersen continues. "The real Norwegian model is more of a philosophy than a place. The philosophy where you are focused on the day you are going to get out from the moment you get in. It can be in a high-security prison or a low-security one."

Indeed, the same philosophy is behind the some 5000 convicts in the country who wear a surveillance electronic bracelet, while being allowed to live on their own. The future is here for Kersten Bergersen. The rate of recidivism of people who wear the monitoring bracelet during the last period of their sentence dropped to 5% according to the most recent study.

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