Prisons in Norway – what matters…?

The somewhat taboo subject of prison and punishment was the hot topic for debate this week at the Perception Society lecture series. In yet another first, Dr. Balasubramanian (Chair, Perception) invited three leading industry experts with invaluable experience in the prison sector to jointly lend their perspectives on the Norwegian Prison System and how it compares with the UK approach to punishment, as Carthusians waited with bated breath for the lecture to begin.

After introductions from Dr. Balasubramanian and Iona Harrison, (Society President), Dr Sarah Lewis kicked off the evening by defining what a prison is and what purpose it must fulfil. As an academic, criminologist and prison reformer, Dr Lewis focused heavily on whether a prison should be a harsh negative experience where people are isolated from society, or can a prison be a place that on the surface looks fairly pleasant. She brought up the example of Halden Prison, Norway, where there are no fences, towers, or walls, yet it is used to house some of the country’s most dangerous sex offenders, murderers and gang leaders. The lenience of control that exists here is juxtaposed to the close security monitoring that occurs in the UK, even for low risk criminals who are tagged, monitored and tracked. Their freedoms are limited to such an extent that it degrades criminals’ sense of self and purpose – but prison isn’t meant to be enjoyable, right? Then why are the rate of reoffending significantly lower in Norway than this side of the North Sea? This is extremely important question for those at the forefront of prison reform.

perception 4 prisons

Photo (Left to right): Luca Viventi, Dr. Balasubramanian (Chair Perception), Dr. Lewis, Mr. Robertson, & Mrs. Harrison

But what is the purpose of a prison? The idea that it is a deterrent is certainly the case in Californian prisons, where people are warehoused in large buildings like battery animals and their psychological ‘therapy’ sessions take place in cages. It is like people are being brought down to the level of a feral dog. Perhaps it is to rehabilitate people. This is the focus in Norway, where very few people return to prison after they have served their punishment and often are successfully reintroduced into society. Bastoy prison is located on a beautiful island, where the ferry to the island is operated by a prisoner, the caterers are prisoners and each ‘family’ of prisoners reside in a self-contained house. There have been no reports of assaults on staff at this prison in its entire history. This notion of softness is difficult to comprehend in the UK, because we have this deep-seated idea that prison is there to serve as a punishment to ‘big scary men’. Yet Dr Lewis argued that it is the pain that comes with the loss of liberty is enough of a deterrent without the danger and stress that often occurs in UK prisons.

Steve Robertson followed with a charismatic and interactive talk, speaking from experience as Deputy Governor of Guys Marsh prison, Dorset. We thought about what someone loses when they are sentenced, including societal status, their job, hope, critical time and most importantly their freedom. He shared anecdotes about death and abuse in prisons. I was most struck by the emotion that came with his story about a man called Antony, who hung himself in his cell, after a short struggle with depression while in Guys Marsh. His concern for his prisoners’ welfare was very touching, reflecting the attitude of care that exists in other institutions such as schools and universities.

Dr Lewis then eloquently spoke on the implementation of the same healthy environment that exists in Norway here in the UK, with a main focus on rehabilitation. She highlighted the importance of having outlets for people to feel normal so that when that are reintroduced in society, they can integrate far more successfully. She gave examples of giving people access to a gym instead of drugs, providing relationship training to build self-esteem and fulfilment, and allowing prisoners to develop their own programmes. Even yoga and mindfulness have been successfully rolled out at Guys Marsh by prison inmates! The final few slides were hugely uplifting, describing a community fair that happened at Guys Marsh prison this summer. She reported no spice attacks, no violent assaults, and no disciplinary issues on this day – a true representation of the improvement in stability and behaviour of the prisoners there.

Tracy Harrison finished by taking about the importance of relationships between inmates and with the staff. Following a trip to Norway, she took on that daunting task of reformation of all the activities at Guys Marsh. This started with the expansion of the gardening facilities at the prison, leading to shared experiences of home cooking using the produce.

It is clear to me having listened attentively to all of our speakers that this modern and rehabilitative approach to prison punishment decreases reoffending rates, increases criminal independence and improves their reintroduction into society. It costs money in the short term, but the long-term benefits to peoples’ lives are far more greater and I hope the government and other prisons take on at least some of the initiatives that these innovative speakers have put in place.

Article by:

Iona Harrison (G)

President of Perception

Head Girl, Charterhouse