Norway is famous for its liberal prison system, but not even the most optimistic criminal would ever hope to end up in a place like Bastoy Island. It’s quite simply paradise on Earth for serious offenders looking for some time off from crime.
Located about an hour away from Oslo, Bastoy Prison, if you can even call this place a prison, is located on a scenic island accessible by ferry. The unique philosophy governing this place can be observed from the moment you set foot on the boat, which is manned almost exclusively by inmates. Instead of just trying to make a run for it as soon as they reach the mainland, these hardened criminals greet visitors and help dock the boat. But once you get to the island and see the kind of freedom and resort-like leisure prisoners enjoy at Bastoy, it becomes clear why they wouldn’t want to go anywhere.
This holiday version of Alcatraz has plenty of beaches where inmates actually sunbathe during the warm summer months, plenty of great fishing spots, tennis courts and even a nice relaxing sauna. Instead of tiny cells, the around 115 prisoners on Bastoy Island live in cozy wooden cottages painted in warm colors, and carry the keys to their own quarters so they can come and go as they please. But you know what they don’t have at Bastoy Prison? Armed guards and fences preventing anyone from escaping. And just so we’re clear, the men here have been convicted of serious crimes, ranging from drug trafficking to rape and murder. Still, they enjoy the kind of lifestyle that is just unthinkable anywhere else, and that most people would actually pay for as a vacation.
But the idea of Bastoy Prison isn’t to offend the people of Norway by pampering criminals instead of punishing them, but to change them, because, as Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, the prison’s governor, says, “what’s the point of punishment, except for leaning toward the primitive side of humanity?” And guess what, Bastoy works! According to statistics, only 20% of criminals who experience Norway’s progressive prison system reoffend within two years of being released, and at Bastoy figures are even better, dropping to an impressive 16%. In comparison, the three-year re-offense rate for US prisons has been 43%, according to a 2011 study, with older ones indicating even grimmer numbers of over 50%.
Photo: John D. Sutter/CNN
Getting back to life in Bastoy Prison, you should know there are very few rules here prisoners have to obey, and a lot more perks to enjoy. Everyone here has a job they have to report to from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm, but they can choose from gardening, farming, taking care of horses, and a bunch of other activities. They get paid about $10 a day for their work, and can spend their salary on groceries at the local shop, so they can cook for themselves at breakfast and lunch. But for dinner the prison cook offers them a diversified menu which includes everything from salmon to chicken con carne. Also, inmates have to check in several times a day, so the guards can make sure they’re still on the island.
Only 1 and a half miles of water separates Bastoy Island from the mainland, and with no fences to stop them from escaping, all inmates would have to do is swim across, or even better, steal one of the boats. All the inmates agree it would be extremely easy to get away, but only a few of them have ever attempted. If they escaped and were later caught, they would be transferred to a maximum security prison and have their sentences extended, and most don’t want to risk that. Plus, having just three unarmed prison guards on the island during the night, makes them feel like they have no reason to escape. But to reassure them further, Nilsen gives them a small talk when they first arrive at Bastoy, telling them 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.” It’s this kind of shocking trust that keeps prisoners from going anywhere.
Despite being treated more like tourists than prisoners, all the inmates on Bastoy Island say they will gladly leave this place when their sentence has been executed. “It’s still prison,” one of them says. “In your mind you are locked up.”
Bastoy isn’t the only convict-friendly jail in Norway. Two years ago, we wrote about Halende, a prison that looks more like a hotel, where even mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik could end up, and there are more of them where the philosophy is not to punish criminals, but to make them want to become better people. “It’s all in the name of reintegration,” said Gerhard Ploeg, a senior adviser at Norway’s Ministry of Justice. “You won’t be suddenly one day standing on the street with a plastic bag of things you had when you came in” he added.