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Norway's "Cushy" Prisons May Actually Work

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When Norway's Ander Breivek went on his horrendous killing spree, many Americans were surprised to discover that Norway's criminal justice system was, by U.S. standards, remarkably soft. There are no life sentences, no death penalty and a prisoner can serve a maximum of 21 years in prison (a sentence that can be re-upped if the prisoner's release is deemed a threat to the community).

Conditions inside some of Norway's prisons are equally liberal. One such prison on the island of Bastoy offers cells with TVs, computers and showers. Inmates can hike, swim and fish on the island. The inmates, murderers among them, work outdoors, often wielding knives, chainsaws and axes -- but never turn those weapons on each other.

Yet, as Erwin James writes, Norway's rate of recidivism is the lowest in Europe. Indeed, according to European researchers, while Europe as a whole has recidivism rates of 70 to 75 percent, prisoners who serve time in Bastoy have a re-offending rate of just 16 percent.

This seems to run contrary to public wisdom about prisons, which is that they should be so awful that no prisoner wants to return.

Among the reasons cited for Bastoy's success was the fact that all prisoners have to work and are treated humanely. "'Bastoy takes the opposite approach to a conventional prison where prisoners are given no responsibility, locked up, fed and treated like animals and eventually end up behaving like animals," Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, the prison's governor, told the Daily Mail. "Here you are given personal responsibility and a job and asked to deal with all the challenges that entails. It is an arena in which the mind can heal, allowing prisoners to gain self-confidence, establish respect for themselves and in so doing respect for others too."

(Photo: Astrid Westvang/Flickr)