Inmates in Norway’s Halden Prison wake up every day inside their communal suites, make breakfast in their kitchen, and later head out to their fully furnished music studio where they can learn how to play guitar or produce music.
In the prison, there are no bars, guards do not carry guns, and in fact, the prison staff often interacts or plays sports with inmates.
This week, the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle released a documentary about Halden Prison, bringing the retired Superintendent of Attica Correctional Facility in New York, James Conway, for a visit. Attica is perhaps the best known state prison in the United States, a home for New York’s most dangerous criminals, rapists, and murders, and the site of a riot in 1971 that left 43 people dead.
As the documentary showed, Halden Prison is nothing like Attica. The newest maximum security facility in Noway, Halden opened in March 2010 and carrying a capacity of 252 prisoners. The prison, which cost $252 million to build, is set among beautiful sloping hills in southeastern Norway.
The prison gained almost immediate attention after it was opened. Time Magazine profiled it just weeks after opening, calling Halden “The World’s Most Humane Prison” and detailing some of its many amenities.
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.”
Norway takes a drastically different approach than the United States. Conway said American inmates have no right to privacy, even if that means using the toilet in full view of guards and fellow inmates.
“Prison is not supposed to be comfortable,” Conway said. “Prison is not a comfortable situation. Society is supposed to be comfortable, the inmate has given up his right to be in society by violating laws, buy violent crimes, by committing murder, by committing rape. That person shouldn’t be coddled, shouldn’t be given a situation where we’re concerned about how they should feel if someone should walk by their cell and see them on the toilet. Who cares how they feel.”
But in Norway, the focus is entirely on rehabilitation. The country has decided that repressive prisons don’t work, so they set about giving their inmates education.
“When they arrive, many of them are in bad shape,” Hoidal says, noting that Halden houses drug dealers, murderers and rapists, among others. “We want to build them up, give them confidence through education and work and have them leave as better people.”
As the documentary showed, life inside Norway’s Halden Prison is all about rehabilitation, and prisoners are given quite a bit of comfort during their stay.
Time noted, “The cells rival well-appointed college dorm rooms, with their flat-screen TVs and minifridges. Designers chose long vertical windows for the rooms because they let in more sunlight. There are no bars. Every 10 to 12 cells share a living room and kitchen. With their stainless-steel countertops, wraparound sofas and birch-colored coffee tables, they resemble Ikea showrooms.”
Life inside Norway’s Halden Prison did not seem to impress Conway, who noted that his inmates at Attica would turn the kitchenware into weapons. “Why don’t you just give them the keys?” he asked. “Why have them in prison anyway?”