Thursday, June 21, 2012

Norway changes prisoners instead of punishing them

I was reading an article about the Bastoy Island prison in Norway and it goes against everything we do in North American society to deal with prisoners. It's like a resort in a way, not like a prison at all. Norway is famous for its liberal prison system and Bastoy Island is unlike any prison you've seen.

It's about an hour away from Oslo on a scenic island accessible by ferry, which is manned by inmates as well as civilians. The island has beaches where inmates sunbathe during the summer, fishing spots, tennis courts and a nice sauna. The approximately 115 prisoners live in nice wooden cottages and they can come and go as they please. They get up, make their own breakfast and then go off to work, mostly in agricultural-type jobs or tending horses. They check in with the guards several times a day to make sure they're safe. They are fed supper by prison staff. The guards are unarmed and interact with the prisoners like peers. The men here have been convicted of serious crimes, ranging from drug trafficking to rape and murder.

The idea of Bastoy Prison is to change the prisoners, not punish them. According to statistics, only 16% of criminals from Bastoy re-offend within two years of being released. In comparison, the three-year re-offense rate for US prisons has been 43%, according to a 2011 study, with older ones indicating over 50%.

There are no walls or fences preventing the inmates from leaving and the mainland is not far. All the inmates agree it would be extremely easy to get away, but most stay because if they escape and get caught, they are transferred to a maximum security prison with extended sentences. The prison warden even tells new inmates to find a phone on the mainland and call, should they escape, “so we don’t have to send the coast guard looking for you.”

The philosophy is not to punish criminals, but to make them want to become better people and truly re-integrate them back into society. Norway also has one of the lowest incarceration rates in Europe and the lowest murder rate in the world.

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