Norway builds the world's most humane prison
May 04, 2010
But how restorative is it?
Ten years and 1.5 billion Norwegian kroner ($252 million) in the making, Halden is spread over 75 acres (30 hectares) of gently sloping forest in southeastern Norway. The facility boasts amenities like a sound studio, jogging trails and a freestanding two-bedroom house where inmates can host their families during overnight visits. Unlike many American prisons, the air isn't tinged with the smell of sweat and urine. Instead, the scent of orange sorbet emanates from the "kitchen laboratory" where inmates take cooking courses. "In the Norwegian prison system, there's a focus on human rights and respect," says Are Hoidal, the prison's governor. "We don't see any of this as unusual."
Halden's greatest asset, though, may be the strong relationship between staff and inmates. Prison guards don't carry guns — that creates unnecessary intimidation and social distance — and they routinely eat meals and play sports with the inmates. "Many of the prisoners come from bad homes, so we wanted to create a sense of family," says architect Per Hojgaard Nielsen. Half the guards are women — Hoidal believes this decreases aggression — and prisoners receive questionnaires asking how their experience in prison can be improved.
There's plenty of enthusiasm for transforming lives. "None of us were forced to work here. We chose to," says Charlott-Renee Sandvik Clasen, a music teacher in the prison and a member of Halden's security-guard chorus. "Our goal is to give all the prisoners — we call them our pupils — a meaningful life inside these walls." It's warmth like that, not the expensive television sets, that will likely have the most lasting impact.