BBC: Norway Turns Criminals into Good Neighbours

Yoga classes, guards as mentors and role models, and the secret behind Norway’s record low level of recidivism.

The BBC’s Emma Jane Kirby comes to Norway to see the country’s famous prison system in action, and to meet prison officers trained to serve as mentors and role models for prisoners.

Kirby starts the detailed analysis of Norway’s correction system with a fundemental question: What is the point of sending someone to prison – retribution or rehabilitation?

She points out Norway moved away from a punitive “lock-up” approach and sharply cut reoffending rates. Her long analysis features around her experiences and observations from Norwegian prisons, where she joins the yoga classes at Norway’s maximum security Halden Prison.

“Barefoot murderers, rapists and drug smugglers practise downward-facing dog and the lotus position alongside their prison officers, each participant fully concentrating on the clear instructions from the teacher”, reports Kirby of BBC.

She describes with bedazzlement how the guards and prisoners are together in activities all the time, eating together, playing volleyball together, and doing leisure activities together.

A guard from the prison says it was completely hard before and there was a masculine, macho culture with a focus on guarding and security. And the recidivism rate was around 60-70%, like in the US.

But in the early 1990s, the ethos of the Norwegian Correctional Service underwent a rigorous series of reforms to focus less on “revenge” and much more on rehabilitation, notes BBC report. Prisoners, who had previously spent most of their day locked up, were offered daily training and educational programmes.

The guards at the prisons describe themselves as role models, coaches and mentors. And since the big reforms, recidivism in Norway has fallen to only 20% after two years and about 25% after five years.

After serving their sentences, the prisons release your neighbours

The governor of the Norway’s maximum security Halden Prison, Are Hoidal, reminds the BBC reporter that in Norway there is no life sentence. The maximum sentence is 21 years, and the law allows for an extra 5 years of preventative detention if the convicted person is still considered a threat to the society. However, in the end, everyone is getting out of prison.

 “So, we are realising your neighbour”, says Hoidal, and he continues: “If we treat inmates like animals in prison, then we will release animals on to your street”. For that, there are no guards, but prison “officers” whose mission is to make the convicts better persons. The prison officers become role models, coaches and mentors.

In Norway, we take people’s liberty, but other rights stay

In Norway, the punishment for offenders is taking their liberty. But their human rights, citizen rights stay: prisoners have access to normal living conditions, health care and education; and they can vote, having the same rights as any other Norwegian citizen.

Giving them a normal life in prison, helps them to search for that normal life while they get out of prison. Also, keeping them out of stress, anger, violence, frustration, struggle, revenge, from all that prison culture from before, this supports prisoners to focus and prepare for a new life. These days, many prisoners from Halden are released as fully qualified mechanics, carpenters, chefs or even graphic designers.

The architecture of the prisons were also redesigned to minimise the sense of incarceration. For instance, Halden Prison was structured to ease the psychological stress and put the prisoners in harmony with the surrounding nature. Also, normalizing life behind bars means to ensure family contact as well. If convicts pass the necessary safeguarding thests, they can spend a couple of nights with their partners and kids in a chalet within the prison ground.

Listen to Emma Jane Kirby’s reports for the PM programme on BBC Radio 4, at 17:00 on Monday 8 July and Tuesday 9 July

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