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Bastoy Prison: The World’s Nicest Prison

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.”

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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.

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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

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