Lessons in law from world’s ‘most humane’ prison

Halden Prison in Norway looks more like a high-class hotel than a maximum security jail. This week, one reporter took a look inside. Is kindness the best way to deal with criminals?

Every room has an ensuite bathroom, flatscreen TV and peaceful views over acres of woodland. Activities on offer include painting lessons, a climbing wall and state-of-the-art music studio. Trendy murals from a top graffiti artist adorn the walls.

Though it might sound like a luxury hotel, no-one comes here out of choice. Halden is a high-security prison. Its inmates are serving time for crimes including rape and murder.

Their day begins when prisoners are let out of their cells at 7.30am. For a wage of £5.60 a day, they take part in work training or sports. Some perform in bands or study in the extensive library. Later, they might pick up some wasabi paste from the prison shop and make sushi. About 340 prison officers are on hand to offer support and guidance to 245 inmates.

At 8.30pm, however, the prisoners’ cells clink shut – leaving them to contemplate four inescapable walls. ‘The real issue is freedom, which is taken away from you,’ one inmate told reporters from The Guardian. ‘That is the worst thing that can happen to you’.

But he is lucky to be jailed in Norway, where prison is about rehabilitation, not punishment. There, even the worst criminals cannot be sentenced to more than 21 years behind bars. That means every inmate will eventually end up living back in the community – and it is prison’s job to turn them into a good neighbour. The way to do that? Give criminals experience of education and employment – and treat them with kindness and respect.

Evidence shows that approach is working well. Rates of reoffending are remarkably low: just 20% of Halden inmates will commit a crime after being released, compared to 50% of British prisoners. And comfortable prisons don’t seem to have encouraged crime: with 74 prisoners in every 100,000 people, Norway’s jail population is half that of the UK.

Norway’s approach, however, is not without its problems. One looming issue is what to do with mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik – who massacred 77 adults and teenagers last summer. Could he be imprisoned somewhere as mild as Halden? For many, the idea is too much to bear.

A gilded cage

Defenders of the Norwegian system say it works much better in the end. Prisoners who are treated well become law-abiding citizens, ready to lead constructive lives. On the other hand, when people are robbed of dignity in crime-ridden, concrete cells, they only become more committed to lawbreaking.

But many people are still shocked. Surely, they say, it is ridiculous to spend so much money and effort on criminals! Murderers, rapists and drug smugglers have done terrible things. Why should they get VIP treatment while law-abiding citizens struggle to get by?

You Decide

  1. Should all prisons be like Halden Prison?
  2. What is the point of prison?


  1. Imagine that you have just been sentenced to one year in prison. Write a diary entry describing your fears and feelings.
  2. Design the perfect prison. What is the daily schedule for prisoners? What facilities do you include? What is the prison motto?

Some People Say...

“Prisoners deserve compassion, not punishment.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Could something like this be introduced in the UK?
Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has suggested he would be enthusiastic about more liberal prisons: saying ‘it is just very, very bad value for taxpayers' money to keep warehousing [inmates] in overcrowded prisons where most of them get toughened up’. But there is not much public support for more humane prisons – and the Halden option is expensive. One year there costs £116,000 for each inmate – compared to the average cost of £45,000 in the UK.
What are other Norwegian prisons like?
Halden is not the only ‘luxury’ jail in Norway: inmates of Bastoy Prison, for example, enjoy horse riding, fishing and cross-country skiing on their isolated, wooded island. But they are also given a lot of responsibility, and help run the island community in an environmentally friendly way. That makes it much cheaper to run, with fewer guards – and a reoffending rate of just 16%.

Word Watch

Kenneth Clarke
Conservative MP Ken Clarke is the UK’s Secretary of State for Justice. That means he is responsible for law and order. Some think he is pushing for radical reforms in the prison system: he has argued for short sentences for petty crimes to be replaced by more community service sentences.
When someone has spent time in prison, they are likely to go on to commit further crime. That means a significant amount of crimes are committed by people who have been in prison before – and that an important purpose of the prison system is preventing reoffending by giving prisoners opportunities and helping them tackle their problems. Another word for reoffending is recidivism.
Prisons are, by definition, populated by those who have broken the law – and many continue to have a disregard for the rules when inside. That means high levels of crime, particularly violence and drug dealing – and an environment that can encourage inmates to commit more crime once they are out of jail.


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