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.

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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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