Inside Norway's prison system
02:54 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Bastoy prison is on an island in southern Norway

There are no fences or armed guards; inmates hold the keys to locks

Inmates have access to beaches, horses and a sauna

Norway's unique justice system has been in the spotlight since a terror attack last summer

Bastoy, Norway CNN  — 

Jan Petter Vala, who is serving a prison sentence for murder, has hands the size of dinner plates and shoulders like those of an ox. In an alcoholic rage, he used his brutish strength to strangle his girlfriend to death a few years ago.

On a recent Thursday, however, at this summer-camp-like island prison in southern Norway, where convicts hold keys to their rooms and there are no armed guards or fences, Vala used those same enormous hands to help bring life into the world.

The 42-year-old murderer stood watch while an oversize cow gave birth to a wobbly, long-legged, brown-and-white calf. He cried as the baby was born, he said, and wiped slime off of the newborn’s face so she could gulp her first breath.

Afterward, Vala called his own mother to share the good news.

“I told my family that I’m going to be a dad,” he said, beaming with pride.

This is exactly the type of dramatic turnabout – enraged killer to gentle-giant midwife – that corrections officials in Norway hope to create with this controversial, one-of-a-kind prison, arguably the cushiest the world has to offer.

Founded in 1982, Bastoy Prison is located on a lush, 1-square-mile island of pine trees and rocky coasts, with views of the ocean that are postcard-worthy. It feels more like a resort than jail, and prisoners here enjoy freedoms that would be unthinkable elsewhere.

It’s the holiday version of Alcatraz.

Overheard on CNN.com: What’s prison for?

There’s a beach where prisoners sunbathe in the summer, plenty of good fishing spots, a sauna and tennis courts. Horses roam gravel roads. Some of the 115 prisoners here – all men and serving time for murder, rape and trafficking heroin, among other crimes – stay in wooden cottages, painted cheery red. They come and go as they please. Others live in “The Big House,” a white mansion on a hill that, on the inside, looks like a college dorm. A chicken lives in the basement, a guard said, and provides eggs for the inmates.

When you ask the cook what’s for dinner, he offers up menu choices like “fish balls with white sauce, with shrimps” and “everything from chicken con carne to salmon.”

Plenty of people would pay to vacation in a place like this.

On first read, all of that probably sounds infuriating. Shouldn’t these men be punished? Why do they get access to all these comforts while others live in poverty?

But if the goal of prison is to change people, Bastoy seems to work.

“If we have created a holiday camp for criminals here, so what?” asked Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, the prison’s governor and a former minister and psychologist. He added, “We should reduce the risk of reoffending, because if we don’t, what’s the point of punishment, except for leaning toward the primitive side of humanity?”

Take a quick look at the numbers: Only 20% of prisoners who come through Norway’s prisons reoffend within two years of being released, according to a 2010 report commissioned by the governments of several Nordic countries.

At Bastoy, that figure is even lower, officials say: about 16%.

Compare that with the three-year re-offense rate for state prisons in the U.S.: 43%, according to a 2011 report from the Pew Center on the States, a nonpartisan research group. Older government reports put that number even higher, at more than five in 10.

Ryan King, a research director at Pew and an author of the group’s recent report, said it’s difficult to compare recidivism rates from state to state, much less from country to country. Instead of focusing on the numbers, he said, one should focus on what a country is or isn’t doing to tackle re-offense rates.

Still, Bastoy remains controversial even in academia. Irvin Waller, president of the International Organization for Victim Assistance and a professor at the University of Ottawa, said in an e-mail that the relative niceness of a prison has no effect on whether people commit crimes when they’re released. “The key is not that much what happens in prison but what happens when the men are released,” he said.

Jan Petter Vala is serving part of a 10-year murder sentence on a posh island in southern Norway.

But officials here maintain that their methods do make a difference, and they follow it up with post-release programs. The aim of Bastoy is not to punish or seek revenge, Nilsen said. The only punishment is to take away the prisoner’s right to be a free member of society.

Even at a time when Anders Behring Breivik is on trial in Norway for killing 77 people in a terror attack last year – and the remote possibility he could end up at Bastoy or a similar prison some day – Nilsen and others stand up for this brand of justice.

Life at Bastoy

To understand Norway’s pleasant-prison philosophy, first you have to get a sense of how life at a cushy, low-security prison like Bastoy actually plays out.

There are few rules here. Prisoners can have TVs in their rooms, provided they bring them from “outside” when they’re sentenced. They wear whatever clothes they want: jeans, T-shirts. One man had a sweater with pink-and-gray horizontal stripes, but that’s as close as it got to the jailbird look. Even guards aren’t dressed in uniform, which makes conducting interviews tricky. It’s impossible to tell an officer from a drug trafficker.

A common opening question: “So, do you live here?”

Everyone at Bastoy has a job, and prisoners must report to work from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays. Some people garden; others farm. Some chop down trees and slice them into firewood (It’s hard not to think about the wood chipper scene in “Fargo” when you see inmates filleting tree trunks with an enormous circular saw). Others tend to a team of horses, which are used to cart wood and supplies from one part of the island to another. Everyone moves about freely during these tasks. Guards are sometimes present, sometimes not. No one wears shackles or electronic monitoring bracelets.

The idea is for prison to function like a small, self-sustaining village.

For their work, inmates are paid. They get a stipend of 59 Norwegian kroner per day, about $10. They can save that money or spend it on odds and ends in a local shop. Additionally, they get a monthly stipend of about $125 for their food. Kitchen workers – that’s another inmate job – serve Bastoy residents dinner each day. For breakfast and lunch, inmates use their stipend to make purchases in the local shop and then cook for themselves at home. Many live in small houses that have full kitchens. Others have access to shared cooking space.

The goal, Nilsen said, is to create an environment where people can build self-esteem and reform their lives. “They look at themselves in the mirror, and they think, ‘I am s***. I don’t care. I am nothing,’ ” he said. This prison, he says, gives them a chance to see they have worth, “to discover, ‘I’m not such a bad guy.’ “

In locked-down prisons, inmates are treated “like animals or robots,” he said, moving from one planned station to the next, with no choice in the matter. Here, inmates are forced to make choices – to learn how to be better people.

Prisoners, of course, appreciate this approach.

Kjell Amundsen, a 70-year-old who said he is in jail for a white-collar financial crime, was terrified when he rode the 15-minute ferry from the mainland out to Bastoy.

On a recent afternoon, he was sweeping up in a plant nursery while John Lennon’s “Imagine” played on the radio. “I think it’s marvelous to be in a prison this way,” he said.

He plans to keep up the task after his sentence ends. “I’m living in a flat (when I get out), but I am convinced I should have a little garden,” he said.