Bastoy Prison: The World’s Nicest Prison

Apr 14, 2015 10 comments

About 75 kilometers off the coast of Oslo in Norway, is an island that's home to some 115 criminals, including the the country’s most dangerous, convicted of crimes such as murder, rape and drug dealing. However, doing time here is like being on a holiday. There are no barbed-wire-topped walls or electrified fences circle the island, nor do armed guards and attack dogs patrol the grounds. Prisoners live in brightly painted small wooden cottages, and tend to farm animals, grow crops and chop wood. For recreation, there's a beach where prisoners sunbathe in the summer, plenty of good fishing spots, horses for riding, a sauna and tennis courts. Dinner offers a choice of dishes such as “fish balls with white sauce and shrimps" and everything from chicken con carne to salmon. It's like “the holiday version of Alcatraz.”


An inmate sentenced to sixteen years and a half for murder and narcotics related crime is seen sun bathing in front of the wooden cottage where he lives in Bastoy Prison. Photo credit

The kind of treatment offered to these prisoners usually perplex, sometimes even offend people who believe that prison should be a place of deprivation and penance rather than domestic comfort. But if the goal of prison is to change people, Bastoy seems to work. Only 16% of prisoners who come out of Bastoy reoffend within two years of being released, compared to Norway's national average of 20 percent, and the European average of 70%.

According to Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, a former governor of Bastoy, it’s all about attitude, respect, and self-discovery. “The only way we have to change people is to put [them] in a situation where the change can start from inside in each individual. And that has to start with him discovering himself in a new way, instead of looking at himself as a failure.”

Bastoy Prison encourages such dramatic change by handing responsibility back to inmates, often through a series of choices. Inmates at Bastoy can make their own decisions regarding how to carry out their respective sentences. Some have chosen to work with the various animals - tending to horses in the stable, or raising cattle, sheep, or lambs. Others have filled positions as farmers, chefs, grocery-store managers, carpenters, mechanics, and even ferry operators.


Bastoy prison from air. Photo credit

There are no wakeup calls in the morning. Prisoners have to be at work and school on time, and have to be able to prove that they are responsible. The working day begins at 8:30 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon when there is a roll call, after which most of the prison staff head home leaving only five guards to keep watch overnight.

These are the houses for the prisoners that can accommodate up to six people, but every man has his own room and they share kitchen and other facilities. Only one meal a day is provided in the dining hall, while breakfast and evening meals have to be cooked. For their work, the men earn 60 NOK per workday (about $10) and are given food allowances each month with which to buy provisions for their self-prepared meals from the island's well-stocked mini-supermarket.

Any prisoner in Norway can apply for a transfer to Bastoy when they have up to five years left of their sentence to serve. Every type of offender, including those convicted of grave crimes such as murder or rape, may be accepted, so long as they are willing to live a crime-free life on release. Many prisoners who have served long time in a maximum security prison elsewhere use Bastoy as a stepping stone to adjust to a normal life before they are released. Even a short stint at Bastoy seems to have a profound effect on the inmates. Arne Kvernvik Nilsen quotes several inmates saying “The time I have spent here has made me to realize that I’m not such a bad guy. And I have decided that I will change my way of living”.

"This is not something that we can punish them into discovering,” said Nilsen.

Bastoy Island itself was once home to a cruel juvenile detention center where boys were suppressed by the Norwegian military using brutal disciplinary methods. The boys home was taken over by the government in 1953 and closed permanently in 1970. Today it is home to the most liberal prison in the world.


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Sources: Bastoy Fengsel / The Guardian / CNN / Pulitzer Center


  1. So...there is only marginally less recidivism from this prison, and only favored prisoners are transferred there. I suppose some of the typically mentally challenged liberals will find something to "learn" from this, but for the rest of us thinking beings it's a garbage story, and garbage idea.

    1. I am not sure if this story is formed from the view-point of the author or the people of Norway, but, the people of Norway seem to appove schemes such as this and I hope that this pin-headed trend will stay in their country.

  2. If your idea of prison is a place to create gladiators, then the usual prisons are what you want. Most prisoners will eventually be released and I, for one, would much rather see them come out of prison better than when they went in rather than worse. The goal should be to prepare them to become honest and productive members of society, not to turn them into "better" criminals ready to prey even more on me and others.

    The best prisons seem to be those that treat the prisoners with respect and teach them to respect themselves and others. Unfortunately, that seems to conflict with the pinheads of the world who only want revenge.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Vengeance and rehabilitation are incompatible - one, usually, makes the other impossible.

  3. Okay "anyone can apply... Including those of grave crime and rape.." Woah.. Call me any name you want but the punishment should fit the crime is what I believe in. You're telling me that you want to send someone who walks into an elementary school shoots # of little children and teachers, or someone that walks into a theater and shoots innocent civilians or how about someone who goes into a house rapes two girls and their mother while their father watches/hears their screaming and burn to death... My friend those people.. You cannot change in my opinion.. I'm pro death penalty and accepting someone who committed those crimes, to this "prison" it's outrageous.. You're sending them on a vacation giving them an award for their crime.. Anyone's entitled to their own opinion but that's my 2cents.

    1. You see, the problem is that your mind first jumped to mass shootings, which are a very US-specific crime. Such occurences are very rare in the rest of the world (though Norway recently had experienced the Utoya massacre).

    2. Simple minded cretins like you are why crime is still a huge issue.

    3. A person who does such a thing must be rehabilitated, because he or she is crazy. And maybe that person will never be able to re-enter society as a functional member, however one can always try, and if that is not the case, such a person should not be put into a Supermax (the american solution to such problems) where they are constantly degraded and removed from anything right or humane, and they should definitively not be killed. A mindset like yours is hindering the progress of society as a whole.

  4. And you don't see anything wrong with the picture of a country that has a resort prison and sentences the slaughterer of 77 (with hundreds more wounded) to just 21 years in prison?

    1. no, he isnt sentenced tpo just 21 years of prison. he is in something we call custody. where he will stay for a certain amount of time, then he is reviewed, and will most likely stay another period until he is reviewed again. Yes, our prison sentences are max 21 years, but that doesnt mean that they cant hold him longer.


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