Inside Bastøy, the world's nicest jail

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It was only a couple of years ago that inmates in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison were required to slop out their own commodes, with the Irish prison system vowing to fundamentally change what was described as a dehumanising system. In Bastøy, not far from the Norwegian capital Oslo, things are very different.

In newspaper columns around the world, the Bastøy, a 2.6 km² shelter of land nestled about an hour’s commute from Oslo in the icy, unforgiving waters of the Skagerrak Strait in the North Sea, is often called the nicest prison in the world. What was once a reform school for delinquent boys – with a reputation of brutal discipline – in now a progressive prison where murderers and thieves do a hard day’s work on a farm, then swim, sunbathe, cross-country ski, or sit in a sauna. 

And while the luxurious conditions of Bastøy might seem unfairly nice for the 115 men who’ve been convicted of breaking the law – murderers, rapists, and drug dealers included – there is no denying it’s working; the reoffending rate is an incredibly low 16%. In Ireland, more than half of all of our prisoners will likely end up back in the prison service.

One of Bastøy's inmates doing pull ups on the football pitch [YouTube]

Bastøy is not the only Norwegian prison that wouldn’t look out of place on Airbnb, but it is a correctional facility, intent of rehabilitating the men living there. All inmate must work, whether it is on the sustainable farm, manning the ferry that transports prisoners, visitors, and staff to and from the mainland town of Horten. Other options include repairing bicycles or fishing.

But it’s the prisoners’ recreational activities that attract the most attention, as the inmates hike around the island, swim against the waves lapping Bastøy’s beaches, speed through the pine trees on their ship-shape bikes, play football or tennis, watch a movie in the cinema, record a track in the music studio, feed their minds in the library, or learn not to sweat the small stuff while seated in the sauna.

All of Bastøy’s inmates are allowed a three-hour visit one a week, all taking place in private rooms. Rather than sharing cells, the prisoners live in wooden cabins, sharing a home with up to six. There, in individual rooms with en-suite bathrooms, the men live as a unit, sharing a kitchen and household duties.

What is it about Bastøy that makes it so successful at rehabilitating its prisoners? Despite a high-profile escape this year, that saw one inmate grabbing a surfboard and heading for the mainland, on the whole, the pastoral and familial quality of the island institute is credited with breaking the cycle of crime.

Prisoners have to develop a sense of shared responsibility and community. The first seven days of an inmate’s sentence are spent in ‘living training’, which sees them learning how to clean and cook for themselves, skills which many of them have never had to practice before. Their work experience on the island, which is almost entirely self sustained, fosters a new sense of self-worth. They learn to respect themselves, and in doing so, to finally respect the law. 

To listen back to Sean Moncrieff's interview with Tom Eberhardt, governor of Bastøy, please click on the link below:

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