magnay norway opens prison island_00000602
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 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.

Bastoy Prison functions like a small village. Everyone has a job, including chopping firewood.

Some prisoners get schooling in a yellow Bavarian-style building near the center of the island. On a recent afternoon, three young men were learning to use computer programs to create 3-D models of cars. All expressed interest in doing this sort of work after their prison terms end.

Tom Remi Berg, a 22-year-old who said he is in prison for the third time after getting into a bar fight and beating a man nearly to death, said he is finally learning his lesson at Bastoy.

He works in the kitchen and is seeking training to become a chef when he’s released. He also plays in the prison blues band – Guilty as Hell – and lives with his bandmates.

“It’s good to have a prison like this,” he said. “You can learn to start a new page again.”

If escaped, please call

The prisoners are required to check in several times a day so guards can make sure they’re still on the island. Nothing but 1½ miles of seawater stops them from leaving; they’d only have to steal one of the prison’s boats to cross it, several inmates said.

An escape would be relatively easy.

Prisoners have tried to escape in the past. One swam halfway across the channel and became stranded on a buoy and screamed for rescuers to help, prison officials said. Another made it across the channel by stealing a boat but was caught on the other side.

Many, however, don’t want to leave. If they tried and failed, they would be forced to go to a higher-security prison and could have their sentences extended.

When inmates come to his island jail, Nilsen, the governor, gives them a little talk.

Among the wisdom he imparts is this: If you should escape and make it across the water to the free shore, find a phone and call so I know you’re OK and “so we don’t have to send the coast guard looking for you.”

This kind of trust may seem shocking or naïve from the outside, but it’s the entire basis for Bastoy’s existence. Overnight, only three or four guards (the prison employs 71 administrative staff, including the guards) stay on the island with this group of people who have been convicted of serious crimes. If guards carried weapons (which they don’t) it might encourage inmates to take up arms, too, he said.

Further complicating the security situation, some inmates, toward the end of their terms, are allowed to leave the island on a daily ferry to work or attend classes on the mainland.

They’re expected to come back on their own free will.

Some prisoners live in dorm-like rooms; they aren't locked in, and guards are not armed.

Inmates are screened to make sure they’re mentally stable and unlikely to plot an escape before they come to Bastoy. The vast majority – 97%, according to Nilsen – have served part of their sentences at higher-security jails in Norway. In the four years Nilsen has been heading up the prison, there have been no “serious” incidents of violence, he said.

By the time they get to Bastoy, inmates view the island as a relief.

‘It’s still prison’

There’s a question inmates here get asked frequently: When your sentence is up, will you want to leave?

The answer, despite the nice conditions, is always an emphatic yes.

“It’s still prison,” said Luke, 23. He didn’t want his full name used for fear future employers would see it. “In your mind, you are locked (up).”

The simple fact of being taken away from family members is enough to stop Benny, 40, from wanting to offend again. The refugee from Kosovo said he was convicted on drug charges after he was found with 13 pounds of heroin. He didn’t want his full name used because he doesn’t want to embarrass his family or jeopardize his chance of finding a job after he’s released.

Before coming to Bastoy, he sat in a higher-security prison while one of his children was born.

“It doesn’t matter how long the sentences get. The sentence doesn’t matter,” Benny said. “When you take freedom from people, that’s what’s scary.”

There are only 3,600 people in prison in this country, compared with 2.3 million in the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Relative to population, the U.S. has about 10 times as many inmates as Norway.

More than 89% of Norway’s jail sentences are less than a year, officials said. In U.S. federal prisons, longer sentences are much more common, with fewer than 2% serving a year or less, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.