Does the Norwegian Government Know a Thing or Two About Doing Prison Well?

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“Do you want people who are angry — or people who are rehabilitated?”

Come have some coffee, waffles and jam, and sit down to eat with a quiet group of sex offenders. Welcome to Norway’s Halden prison a maximum-security prison host to dangerous and high dangerous criminals, rapists, murderers and pedophiles included. Halden Prison at a cost in the American equivalent of $252 million (or $220 million depending your source).

This is how we talk about Norway and their humane prison:

The 248–252  inmates it is capable of housing are kept in a way designed to transition them from prison to freedom well. Norway focuses intensely on ensuring that ”doing time” is done in a dignified way, and inmates’ sentence should be a dress rehearsal for living a life without crime once they have completed their sentence.

Prisons have been around as long we could write; with the development of written language, came the creation of formal legal codes as official guidelines for society. The Babylonian’s were all about punishment as a form of vengeance, the Roman’s too, and that’s a trend around the world that never went out of style.

In America we have an eighth amendment that (questionably) outlaws “cruel and unusual punishment, but what one might find cruel, our legal system doesn’t necessarily agree with as unusual.

“As long ago as 1910 the Supreme Court acknowledged that “what constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment has not been exactly decided. (Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349 ).”

In 1787, Benjamin Franklin and company had an idea about how to correct our correctional facilities, and out of their conversation borne the world their first “penitentiary.” (This is how we got the word penitentiary. Inmates engaging in penitence.) In the midst of the enlightened thinking period, a prison to foster honest to goodness regret and penitence in the hearts of criminals.

“In the ambitious age of reform after the American Revolution, the new nation aspired to change profoundly its public institutions, and to set an example for the world in social development.  Every type of institution that we are familiar with today — educational, medical and governmental — was revolutionized in these years by the rational and humanistic principles of the Enlightenment. Of all the radical innovations born in this era, American democracy was, of course, the most influential. The second major intellectual export was prison design and reform.

The members of The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons expressed growing concern with the conditions in American and European prisons. Dr. Benjamin Rush spoke on the Society’s goal, to see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania set the international standard in prison design.

Insert Eastern State Penitentiary, a prison abandoning corporal punishment and ill-treatment. A massive new structure opened in 1829, with the intent to move criminals toward spiritual reflection and change. The method was a Quaker-inspired system of isolation and labor. They thought isolation was the key, plus mild interaction with others and lots of silence, would open the door toward pondering thoughts of their behavior.

But naturally the new debate came to center on the effectiveness and compassion of solitary confinement. Was it cruel to men and women to be completely restricted from outside visitors, books or letters from home, or any form of contact with the outside world?

The Pennsylvania System was abandoned in 1913. The last prisoners left Eastern State Penitentiary in 1971.


Could the Norwegians be on to something?  It’s barely four years in, time will tell.


Inside Halden: The most humane prison in the world


With a focus on rehabilitation, Halden is designed to simulate a village so prisoners can consider themselves part of society because their government believes that, “the smaller the difference between life inside and outside the prison, the easier the transition from prison to freedom.”


“In Norway, fewer than 4,000 of the country’s 5 million people were behind bars as of August 2014.

That makes Norway’s incarceration rate just 75 per 100,000 people, compared to 707 people for every 100,000 people in the US.

On top of that, when criminals in Norway leave prison, they stay out. It has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%

Correction much?

Read more about, Why Norway’s Prison System Is So Successful, on the Business Insider here.

Writer and curator of interesting12, Maggie is a DC based writer with a heart for nonprofits, a passion for complicated people, and lover of all things well designed and well said. This former longtime LA resident is a firm believer we should be challenging ourselves to discuss what affect us in this world and how. She’s opinionated, a teller of both sides of the story, and some say she’s clever.