By Monika Barta
Luxurious modern communal apartment style areas, a library, a sports center, and even a music studio are some of the amenities at the Halden Prison in Norway. At Norway’s newest and second largest prison, the main focus of imprisonment is on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Opened in 2010, Halden is one of Norway’s highest security jails, holding rapists, murderers and pedophiles. Yet, there are no bars; the convicts are allowed to live in groups of 8 people in the shared apartment simulation areas, where every cell is accommodated with a flat screen TV. Security guards organize activities from 8 am in the morning until 8 pm in the evening. The prisoners can work, pursue or continue an education, and indulge their hobbies whether it’s jogging in the woods, playing bongos, piano, electric guitars in the recording studio, ceramics, or cooking food. At Halden, inmates can buy ingredients to cook their own meals. The variety of these products includes prime fillet and beef, cheese, vanilla pods or halva, and even wasabi paste for sushi lovers. Some even train for cooking and nutrition certificates in the kitchen classroom. Any products or leftovers can be stored in the mini private refrigerators located in each cell. Afternoon waffles are a weekly tradition in most Norwegian homes and so it is at Halden. The prisoners gather every week for waffles and freshly roasted coffee.
Unlike in most U.S. and U.K. prisons, the staff at Halden doesn’t have to worry about the prisoners using utensils as weapons; according to them, there isn’t much violence. Knifes and other sharp objects are open for anybody’s use. The furniture, which has been compared to that of hotels, or American college dorms by the media, isn’t specially designed to prevent it from being turned into arson fuel, shivs, or other dangerous instruments. The few violent incidents had almost exclusively happened in Unit A, where the inmates with more serious psychological disturbances are kept. However, repeated misbehavior or violent activity may lead to cell confinement, but only during regular work hours. In some more extreme cases, access to TV is withheld.
Currently, Halden employs about 340 staff members including teachers and healthcare professionals, all of whom have completed a two-year-long University course emphasizing ethics, law, and human rights; the role of a prison governor in Norway is that of a role model, a coach, and a motivator. The staff members are encouraged to mingle with the inmates developing trustful and respectful relationships and helping to rehabilitate them. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the staff from the convicts, since they aren’t required to wear prison attire. Such humane treatment and communication is essentially aimed towards a creation of a brighter future for the inmates upon their release. The goal is to teach the prisoners to become a part of the healthily functioning society, have homes and jobs, and maintain family ties throughout their stay at Halden; the former is regarded as a resource to prevent re-offending. Therefore, there is a separate well-stocked chalet-style house where the prisoners can have overnight visits with their families. The inmates are also entitled to private unmonitored two hour long visits from a partner or a friend, twice a week.
The stated maximum prison sentence in Norway is 21 years. However, if the convict is not rehabilitated by the end of the initial term, the time in jail can be extended in five-year increments. Therefore, essentially, an individual could spend a lifetime in prison. Technically, the only difference is that such cases are installment-based.
Although Americans may think this prison system model may seem overly loose, it works perfectly fine for Norway. The country is known to have one of the lowest recidivism rates (20 percent) in the world; meanwhile the statistics of the United States show a striking 76.6 percent. It would be hard to say if the U.S. would be able to successfully adapt the Scandinavian criminal justice ways. Even though focusing on restoration and rehabilitation is a mature and logical approach to re-incorporate convicts to society, the country itself is very much different from the United States. Norway has a homogenous population and is much smaller than the United States.