This article was written on 12 October 2015 and has been republished now. The Prison Governor cleared this article for publishing and distribution.
It is a cold, grey day in Norway, and the date is 9 October 2015. It’s Friday. And I’m going to Bastøy Prison: a completely open prison island (insofar as an island can be open). It is best thought of as a small village, with various work units teaching inmates practical work skills in ‘normal jobs’. All inmates are male.
My day began with a ferry ride to the island from the nearby Horten area. I took the ferry at 10am and was surprised to find that it was not only free to use, but also staffed by inmates (other than the captain, who is a professional sailor). The inmates were friendly and talkative: it was a great way to start my trip and to discuss life at Bastøy with people who lived there. Their evaluation of the prison was overwhelmingly positive. It was apparent that they had been interviewed, selected and trained at quite some cost for this role: it was the only job on the island which involved daily trips to the other side. As one highlighted to me, the demonstration of trust was immense. They could easily simply disembark from the ferry in Horten and run away if they wanted to. But they did not want to, and this was demonstrative of the significant trust invested in inmates’ integrity, a theme which was pertinent to me throughout the visit.
One of the men I spoke to explained that he used to run a successful business before he made some mistakes. He has a family with two young children now approaching their teenage years. He was very positive about Bastøy; while he noted that of course it was difficult to be away from his family, he also said that Bastøy allowed him a good amount of time to speak with his children on the phone. His family are also able to visit him regularly on the island (as it is an open prison, there are no barriers between visitors and inmates). Additionally, there are time allowances when inmates can go home to visit their families for a few days at a time. Toward the end of a sentence, an inmate may be given leave to return home with a curfew (the length of this period depends on the length of the total sentence).
I felt compelled to ask about the one person who had recently breached this trust: the inmate who escaped earlier this year. The inmates on the ferry felt that he had made a huge mistake. In their view, he would inevitably be caught, and when he was he would go to a high-security prison rather than returning to Bastøy. They noted, however, that conditions in the prison had not changed at all following this event. No security arrangements were altered for the inmates due to the actions of one escapee, and for this they were very thankful.
As I arrived on the island I was greeted by a prison guard who then drove me a short distance up to the main ‘village’ where the prisoners were housed and the work units were situated. There, as I checked in at a reception that was similar to but more clean and modern than a traditional British prison guardroom, I was met by the current Prison Governor, Tom Eberhardt. Like in any other prisons I have visited, I handed over my possessions to the guards (hence the lack of photos in this article – sorry!), and then we began our tour.
Tom is a remarkably calm and thoughtful person. He took an entire working day out of his schedule to explain Bastøy to me and show me around, for which I was very grateful and thanked him profusely. He briefed me on the history and current situation of the island, with the aid of a large aerial photograph.
Bastøy was established in 1900 as a boys’ reformatory. It was highly disciplinarian and was also the site of abuse. In 1915 the boys instigated a coup which was crushed through military force. During the Second World War the island was occupied by the Nazis. The disciplinarian reformatory remained post-WWII until the 1950s, and in 1970 it was shut down entirely. The island was then for a decade a site housing recovering alcoholics, but this venture was unsuccessful. In 1984, the prison was established in the role that it retains today.
Tom noted that Bastøy could easily accept more inmates, and indeed needs to in order to expand its work. For example, one of the island’s outputs is chopped wood, which is purchased and used by households on the mainland as firewood, but there are not enough inmates available to cut the trees each year. At the same time, Norway like other European nations has an overpopulated prison system and for those committing petty crime there is a wait following their sentencing before they actually attend prison. In effect, they receive what might be called a joining date in the UK. Due to the political climate, however, which currently tends toward right-wing policies, Bastøy is not receiving the go-ahead to accept further inmates. If it did, the island’s production of firewood would increase to the optimal level and the ‘village’ could be developed into more of a realistic settlement with more houses, more people and more work units. It would also allow the carpentry work unit to operate at the optimal rate (currently it is understaffed).
I couldn’t help but ask Tom about the circumstances of the aforementioned incident earlier this year, in which an inmate escaped by paddling to the shoreline at Horten, using a surf board as a floatation device and a shovel as a paddle. Tom explained that this sort of incident happened every five years. The surf board had been an item in amongst the huge amounts of waste which wash up on Bastøy’s beaches on a regular basis. He also explained that near the beach there are a number of boats with small padlocks securing them. That these padlocks are small is entirely purposeful: Tom notes that his role encompasses not only the security of Bastøy but also the safety of the inmates. The padlocks on the boats therefore are strong enough to secure the boats, but small enough that if someone was really desperate to escape they would likely choose to break a padlock and use a boat. The likelihood of their death using makeshift floatation devices is high. The inmate in question also tied his surf board to the opposite side before continuing to flee. This is what Bastøy requests of inmates if they do decide to flee, as it lets the prison staff know that the person made it to the other side safely, and negates the need for a very expensive search of the waters in between the island and the mainland. The individual in question has now been caught again. Inmates at Bastøy are not considered dangerous, Tom explained, and therefore there is no ‘manhunt’ as such when someone escapes. Instead, escapees are generally found during routine checks by police.
The residents at Bastøy live in a series of small houses dotted around the ‘village’. There is also a house specifically designated for new arrivals where each new inmate can be observed so as to ascertain whether he presents any special challenges or has any particular needs. Additionally, there is a particularly small house for just one inmate to stay in alone, and this is reserved for those who for whatever reason would benefit from that living arrangement. Each house had a designated ‘house father’ who was responsible for order and cleanliness within his house, and who would retain this position for as long as he was happy to do so and displayed competency in doing so. They are also responsible for waste management.
The Prison Council—mainly composed of prisoners elected by the prison inmates, in addition to a few members appointed by Tom—can vote on collective issues to do with Bastøy, not those concerning specific individuals. In this way Bastøy’s decision-making processes are democratic where this is feasible.
Inmates are in charge of preparing their own breakfasts and lunches, whilst dinner is prepared centrally by the cooking work unit, whose kitchen and dining room is collocated with the shop. Stepping into this shop is a surreal experience because (and it is difficult to find another way of phrasing this) it’s like a normal shop, with only a few differences. Firstly, there are no pre-prepared sandwiches for sale, or indeed anything that would be suitable on its own as a meal without further preparation. This is purposeful: it forces the prisoners to plan and prepare meals individually or together in their houses. The core foods are priced at the rate equal to the price the prison buys them for. However, any confectionary is slightly priced-up, and the profit made from this goes into a fund that the Prison Council can spend for the benefit of the inmate population as a whole. The shop is staffed on rotation so that inmates are able to qualify as shopkeepers (a well-paid job in Norway). Payments at the shop are made using a special card which is preloaded with money each month. Inmates are paid a limited amount which is specifically chosen so that food is affordable, but so that they can achieve more with their spending by clubbing-together in their houses to buy food that can be prepared together. There’s also a section of the shop selling non-food essentials including running kit, standalone potato chip-making ovens and, bizarrely to the unassimilated observer, large pairs of scissors.
The scissors for me were indicative of the high level of trust Bastøy placed in the inmates. Those in the kitchen of course had access to large knives, for example. There was no restriction on these sorts of items, and yet prison staff were not routinely armed, and were not equipped with other defensive devices such as batons, pepper spray or handcuffs (they have these items, but they are stored away in a crisis-management room in case of emergency).
Some areas of the island (specific areas of the coastline) are cordoned off, meaning that inmates are not allowed to go there. These beaches are available for the civilian population to use as they please. There is an old light house building on the north-eastern section of the coastline, and this is now used as a conference centre, and is also available for the prison staff to rent out for themselves and their friends and families.
In their spare time, inmates are allowed to partake in recreational activities such as swimming and fishing in the sea, both popular activities amongst the prison population. Although there is a gym, the inmates generally partake in ‘healthier’ forms of exercise than the traditional weight-lifting typical of most prisons. Instead, inmates run around the paths and woodlands outside. The only restriction on this is that inmates must be centralised and counted four times in a 24 hour period. I met one inmate, a chef, who has been taken off the island multiple times by Bastøy’s activities leader to participate in marathons, for example. He explained to me that the time he spends running allows him to reflect, to rid himself of stress and to deal with the sadness he experiences due to being away from his family. Bastøy also has a very successful football team who won the intercity championship last year and are about to attend this year’s final to reprise their title. The prison boasts one of the best grass pitches available, and it is common for major teams (including, for example, Manchester City) to visit for test matches.
The prison has emergency services, with a full-time nurse on site and a doctor visiting once per week. The fire service is staffed by inmates including the aforementioned chef I met who was a firefighter prior to his incarceration. These fire-trained individuals are equipped and trained to stem fires until the professional fire service reach the scene. They have a very serious role in the prevention of fires getting out of hand; Tom noted that forest fires are one of the island’s biggest safety concerns during the summer months.
Aside from working, inmates can also go to school at Bastøy. The school is staffed by a headmistress and teachers across a broad range of subjects, both practical and academic. Qualifications are offered up to and including PhD level (there is presently one Philosophy PhD student researching peace studies). University-level qualifications are provided by external universities with distance-learning programmes, while all other qualifications are certificated by the prison’s affiliated college in Horten. The advantage of this is that the college also has students attending on the mainland, and therefore certificates received by inmates are indistinguishable from certificates received by ordinary students.
Bastøy has horses, sheep and cattle on site, many of which roam freely around the village. The horses are bred for racing, work and transportation, while the cattle and chickens are grown only for meat. Livestock are shipped to the mainland to be slaughtered (Norwegian law requires this). The meat is then shipped back to Bastøy, where it is prepared by the chefs and eaten by the prisoners. Tom showed me a wonderful representation of the circle of life, in fact in a much clearer and less sinister way than Disney’s The Lion King ever could have. About 50 metres from the barn where the cattle were born, and surrounded by grown cattle, was another building with a composting machine, into which went all of the leftovers from every meal at Bastøy. The compost below was to be used on the island, from which the grass would grow, which the cattle would eat, and so on. Other waste was also dealt with sustainably where possible, for example furniture was turned into sawdust and sold on to the mainland. The sustainability agenda was, Tom emphasised, not the main purpose of the prison by any means. Where it was practical to do so, Bastøy would employ sustainable methods of energy production and renewal. If wood needed to be transported but there was not a time constraint in place, they would use horse and cart. If they needed the wood to be on the other side of the island quickly they would use a vehicle. The majority of vehicles on the island were powered by electricity, but the people carriers were petrol fuelled.
I asked Tom about the reoffending rate, which has been widely reported as standing at 16% compared to Europe’s 70% average (see, for example, Erwin James’s article for The Guardian). Erwin had interviewed Tom’s predecessor Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, who endorsed the 16% rate. However, Tom noted that there is an inherent difficulty in defining the exact ‘relapse’ rate, as he called it. For example, if someone who was in prison for murder later commits a driving offence and returns to prison, that may be counted as a relapse statistically, even though the individual has not technically relapsed. Additionally, the statistic is disputed because statisticians are in disagreement not only over the type of offence that constitutes a relapse but also the period within which a relapse is measured and the year that the sample has been taken in. Statistics in any case do not tell the analyst much about Bastøy’s specific contribution to an ex-offender’s ability to avoid relapsing because many of the inmates at Bastøy have previously spent the majority of their sentences at other prisons. For these reasons, Tom prefers not to employ the 16% rate and instead suggests that hearing inmates’ and ex-inmates’ stories is a much more effective way of deducing the value of Bastøy.
Staff no longer live on the island; the only staff remaining are the night staff, who remain on the island on a shift basis for security reasons. Everyone else takes an 8.15am ferry onto the island and leaves on the 3.10pm ferry. I had the pleasure of meeting the staff, who cook hotdogs for lunch on an outdoor barbecue every Friday. In particular, I had the pleasure of speaking to the headmistress of the school, who lives on the mainland with her husband on their working farm. Her husband is also a teacher, specialising in pedagogical methods. The atmosphere was warm and the staff joked with one another. It was evident that both uniformed and non-uniformed staff had good relationships with each other and with Tom. Tom explained that after payday each month he and the staff would all go for drinks on the mainland.
Bastøy has gained quite some notoriety over the years. The majority of visitors are journalists, researchers and people working in the sector who are on knowledge exchange missions. However, only about 20% of applications to visit are accepted, and mine was because Tom believes in the goals of the Oldfield Charitable Trust related to reducing reoffending in the UK. In other words, there was a clear professional reason why I was coming to the island, and this is one of the key criteria for admittance. Tom and his staff are also involved in government consultations about rehabilitation best practice. This entails research about rehabilitation programmes across Europe, and Tom has the opportunity to visit other prisons.
There was a church at Bastøy which had relatively recently been renovated. In Norway there is a fairly strong trend of atheism, and the role of the visiting Christian and other religious leaders is not so much of a religious one. Rather, religious leaders visiting the inmates tend to focus on the development of life skills. Tom mentioned that it was difficult to attract Muslim imams who were willing to attend free of charge while being religiously moderate; thus a rigorous vetting process was in place. It is important to Tom that prisoners were not evangelised (as is common, for example, in the US). The church serves instead as a place for quiet reflection, and Tom provides lectures on Bastøy life and motivation. The prison also has a working choir which sings at other churches outside the island. The church’s biggest annual event is the Christmas service.
In the early 20th century, the Bastøy church had been a threatening place as the priests were apparently no kinder to the boys than the rest of the prison staff were. There were a number of other buildings which were known to be similarly notorious. One building in particular to the south of the island was once the solitary confinement building, resembling something similar to the one portrayed in The Great Escape, and apparently insufferable. This was eventually burned down by one or more of the boys at the time (the instigators were never identified). A building also noted for its historical role in the old reformatory’s dynamics is a traditional Norwegian food building, identifiable as a two-floored rectangular stack, with the lower floor smaller and narrower than the upper floor, hence resembling the shape of a thick-trunked, flat-topped tree. This building is now out of use but still standing and in a state of disrepair, and will be renovated and retained for historical reasons. Portions of the last generations of boys to live at the reformatory are still alive today and a number of them have visited Bastøy. Some arrive on the island and feel compelled to turn back instantly, such was the trauma of their experiences there.
Bastøy has won awards for its promotion of inmates’ human rights. Whatever the prison’s rate of reoffending, Bastøy’s model of rehabilitation is clearly effective, and vastly more effective than anything the UK has in operation at this time. The model in fact reminds me in some ways of Diagrama’s approach to running juvenile prisons in Spain: the young inmates are encouraged to learn and gain work skills, they spend a lot of time outside, they have contact with teachers more than they do with guards and they can always see a beautiful view in the distance, wherever they are. The idea of a prison island like Bastøy is difficult to imagine off the shores of the UK, but it is not impossible in the long term. Tom highlighted that there is actually no need for an island: a ‘prison village’ on the mainland is just as feasible. In conversation with Tom I noted that the Clink Restaurant is potentially a start to this sort of model in the UK, as it has a cognate philosophy and could be expanded into other work units. Perhaps one day this could form a foundation from which the Bastøy model could be adapted and built-up in the UK.
 http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/sep/04/bastoy-norwegian-prison-works [accessed 10 October 2015].
Bastøy Prison (Bastøy landsfengsel) and Bastøy Island aerial photograph used at top: copyright Grim23 at English Wikipedia.