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‘Inmates behave because they actually like being here’: what I learned at a Norweigan prison

There are plenty of lessons for New Zealand’s criminal justice system to be drawn from the Scandinavian approach, writes Max Harris in this edited excerpt from his new book The New Zealand Project.

An increasing number of New Zealanders accept that our criminal justice system – and our approach to imprisonment – is broken. Bill English famously called prisons “a moral and fiscal failure” in 2011. But in recent years our imprisonment rate has increased, and the already disgraceful over-representation of Māori has gotten worse. How, if at all, can this be changed?

Looking to Norway’s experience is helpful. Norway’s imprisonment rate is one of the lowest in the world, around a third of New Zealand’s. Its rate in early 2017 was 74 per 100,000, compared with New Zealand’s 208 per 100,000. Norwegian prisons are known for being humane. As well, Norway has advanced victim support, including state compensation for victims of crime. With the financial support of the New Zealand Law Foundation, I travelled to Norway in late 2015 to explore how it has built this criminal justice system.

I’d made inquiries about trying to visit a prison while in Norway, but with little luck. Then, after sending a message while in Oslo to a generic Norwegian public sector email address, I received a phone call out of the blue. A kind employee of the Norwegian Correctional Services Department, Ellen Bjercke, introduced herself. The good news, she told me, was that I’d be able to visit a prison in Norway during the week I was there: Bastøy Prison. The bad news? It was a few hours away, and would require a long car trip and a ferry ride. Just as I began to worry about whether the journey was possible, though – in an act of extraordinary trust and kindness – Bjercke said she’d be happy to drive me.

Once I’d arrived at Bastøy, I was briefed by Tom Eberhardt, the prison governor. Not a tall man, Eberhardt looked tough but friendly. He told me and several other visitors that Bastøy has a high staff to inmate ratio: 72 staff for 115 inmates. Inmates there can work in agriculture, maintenance and buildings, on the ferry, in the prison’s kitchen, in the library, in carpentry, or on labour and welfare issues. One was doing a PhD in criminology. As much as 30 per cent of the prison’s food is grown on the island, and working with animals is seen as a way to teach inmates empathy. I took a walk around later to see the housing on the island and to have lunch. The inmates live in flats of different sizes. Inmates are placed carefully in flats to teach skills: prisoners with reduced hygiene or social skills are placed alongside those known to have greater abilities in these areas.

Tom Eberhardt explained a little bit of the philosophy that underpins the prison’s operation. A key tenet is “the principle of normality”, he said. “Everyday life in prison isn’t meant to be different from everyday life outside of prison … Inmates behave because they actually like being here.”

Another principle is “creating good neighbours”: the prison aims to highlight that inmates are dependent on others, and that they need to be sensitive to the needs of others. When released, they “will have to deal with other people’s mindsets”, he noted, so why not prepare them for this interaction within a community while in prison? He also observed, “If you treat people badly, they will become bitter, angry – not be a good neighbor.” Bastøy is a “human ecological prison”, too, based on the idea that we can take “responsibility for ourselves by taking care of nature”. Care was clearly central to Bastøy’s functioning: if you have no care for nature, Eberhardt said, you can’t take care of yourselves.

Bastøy is clearly a successful prison, and the Norwegian Correctional Services Department – and Tom Eberhardt – are justifiably proud of it. There has been no violent episode there for the past 30 years. The prison helps to reintegrate its inmates into society. Eberhardt attributed this to the fact that “they’re not released with hatred towards society”. As well, he told me, “We haven’t taken their hope away.”

Eberhardt rejected the idea that justice should be about revenge. That cold day in December, he looked me in the eye and said: “Revenge [in criminal justice] is like pissing your pants in Norway. It feels good. But then you start to freeze.”

The administrative offices at Bastøy Prison, Norway. Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty

How has Norway developed a criminal justice system with prisons such as Bastøy? Eberhardt: “The culture in Norway is a forgiving culture.” In addition, he discussed the role of empathy, saying that policy-makers in Norway have asked, “What kind of prison facility [would] you want for your son?” The point about empathy was echoed by Kari Henriksen, a Norwegian MP with a deep interest in criminal justice, who told me that she could imagine herself being violent or becoming a criminal, and that such empathy was essential to policy-making. I can’t imagine a New Zealand politician being similarly brave.

After returning to Oslo, I met with four representatives of KROM (the Norwegian Association of Penal Reform) to explore further Norway’s distinctive approach to criminal justice: Thomas Mathiesen, Ole Kristian Hjemdal, Sturla Falck and Kristian Andenaes. Thomas Mathiesen is a well-known Norwegian criminologist now in his 80s, the author of books such as The Politics of Abolition.

Norway has not always been progressive in its criminal justice policy, they underscored. Key changes were made in the 1970s, and Mathiesen, Hjemdal, Falck and Andenaes emphasised three factors as being central to these shifts.

First, the climate of the 1960s and 1970s was important. “We are children of our time,” one said. 1968 was a year of protest, especially in Europe, and the decade also brought a sense of hope and imagination to political debates. Criminal justice reforms in Norway were hence “part of a larger change of values and basic policies”.

A second factor was the work of the Norwegian Labour Party politician Inger Louise Valle. Valle pushed hard, they told me, to introduce legislative changes in the criminal justice field that had a far-reaching effect on Norway’s low prison population.

Third, I heard about the “long-term insistence” of groups like KROM, campaigning to entrench a greater spirit of forgiveness in Norwegian society. It was clear, from this conversation and the off-the-record remarks of others, that KROM had made a significant difference: including through its almost 50-year history of annual conferences bringing together inmates, the public sector, lawyers, academics, students and judges.

As Tom Eberhardt indicated to me, justice means more than revenge. And to build a justice system that truly honours the word “justice”, we will need more than mere tweaks to our existing system. We need “decarceration” in the sphere of criminal justice, to use Angela Davis’s phrase: a stepped process of moving away from incarceration as the default response to offending, drawing on a values-based approach to politics. The Norwegian approach – developed in a country of similar size to New Zealand, with its 5.2 million people – offers some guidance about how we might kickstart that conversation.

The New Zealand Project is published by BWB.


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