Just under 50 miles off the coast of Norway’s capitol city of Oslo is tiny Bastøy Island, more accurately known as Bastøy Prison which has a legacy of incarceration going back over a century during which the conditions have vacillated from brutality that triggered a revolt of young boys to the present humane commune of criminals.
Like San Francisco’s Alcatraz, Bastøy Island proved to be a prime spot for incarceration where the natural sea barrier prevented any escape. Thus in 1900 the Bastøy boys home opened on the island and began taking in wayward young men to be reconditioned in the isolated environs. The conditions in the institution were stark and the punishment for misbehavior was draconian even by the standards of the few outsiders who visited the island. The poor treatment came to a head in 1915 when a group of boys tried to escape and when they were caught, the rest of the youths rioted, burning down a barn in the process. It took the intervention of the Norwegian military who deployed troops to the island to bring the boys in line. Unfortunately the riot changed little and the boys home remained in operation until 1970.
Once the boy’s home was closed, the island was converted to a minimum-security prison that took a more humanistic approach to prison life. In Bastøy Prison, which still operates in the same conscientious manner today, the inmates are treated as part of a community. They are given jobs which they must perform, but they are also given downtime and the limited freedom to roam the island. They are roomed in well appointed cabins and fed meals prepared by a professional chef. And these are not minor offenders either. Among the over 100 inmates living on Bastøy Island are rapists, murderers, and drug smugglers.
Many have raised an eyebrow at providing such an experience and calling it punishment, but only 16% of prisoners released from Bastøy Prison end up reoffending compared to Europe’s general average of 70%. The prison also sets out to be ecologically aware by having the prisoners care for the natural habitat of the island as well. In a 2012 CNN article the prison governor summed up the philosophy nicely:
“If we have created a holiday camp for criminals here, so what? We should reduce the risk of reoffending, because if we don’t, what’s the point of punishment, except for leaning toward the primitive side of humanity?