Prisoners serving time at Bastoy prison in Norway are more likely to be sunning themselves on a beach or strolling through a pine forest than sitting in cramped cell. It’s no surprise then, that Bastoy has been called the world’s nicest prison.

Bastoy sits on a small island and is home to 115 prisoners. Some of the inmates have committed very serious and violent crimes. Bastoy is the largest low-security prison in Norway, but it’s more community than prison. Prisoners live in shared homes with their own bedrooms and shared facilities. They can wear their own clothes, visit the prison shop, library or church.

In their spare time they can go fishing, play football, or work out at the gym. There’s a movie room and a weekly agenda of courses, lectures, events and concerts. They even run the island’s ferry service, but nobody seems tempted to alter course and make a break for freedom.

It couldn’t be more different from the more traditional approach of harsh punishment for criminals. Not surprisingly critics say Bastoy is more a holiday camp than a correctional facility. But Norwegian authorities insist this softer approach is more effective.

 Prisoners can attend the church on the island
Image: Bastoy Prison

How does it work?

The prison demands a respectful relationship between prisoners, as well as with guards. Most of the prison officers leave the island overnight. Prisoners are expected to take responsibility for themselves. Apart from one meal a day that’s provided, the inmates feed themselves.

Bastoy is what Norway calls an “ecological prison”. Inmates work every day, tending the horses and sheep, helping run the farm, or chopping down trees for fuel. They undergo training programmes, learning new skills in preparation for release.

“Life inside prison needs to resemble life outside, as much as security considerations and resources allow," explained Gerhard Ploeg, senior adviser in the Norwegian Ministry of Justice in a New York Times opinion piece. "The more gradual the transformation from imprisonment to freedom, the better the chances to prevent re-offending.”

“But prisoners are required to take responsibility for their actions – past, present and future. Besides, we believe it is more effective for a person to want to stay away from crime than for systems to try to scare them away from it.” He adds: "Who would you rather have as a neighbour?”

Norway has the lowest reoffending rate in Scandinavia. Two years after release, only 20% of prisoners have been reconvicted. By contrast, a study of 29 American states - America has the world’s largest prison population - found a much higher rate of reoffending.

Over 50% of prisoners in the United States will be back in jail within three years of their release.

Norway also has a continuing care policy, whereby everyone released from prison will have access to services to help them with housing, employment, and healthcare. This contact with community services begins well before they are released. For instance, they are allowed to start jobs on the outside 18 months before leaving the prison.

“You are free, but you are not free,” says one prisoner.

  Prisoners work on the island's farm
Image: Bastoy Prison

Violent criminals

It’s true that some of the inmates are inside for violent crimes, but they don’t begin their sentences in Bastoy. Prisoners have to apply to come to the island prison, having demonstrated a clear willingness to change while serving time in more traditional jails.

There is no such thing as a life sentence in Norway. The longest prison sentence is 21 years, or 30-year maximum sentence for crimes related to genocide, crimes against humanity or other war crimes.

The average sentence is around 8 months. More than 60% of unconditional prison sentences are up to 3 months, and almost 90% are less than a year.

 Prisoners can use the grounds for sports activities
Image: Bastoy Prison

According to experts, longer prison sentences don’t provide a strong deterrent, and the link between harsh punishment and reduction of crime is far from clear cut.

The obvious question with a prison without walls or armed guards is the risk of escape. In 2015 one prisoner did just that, using a surfboard and a paddle. But it’s extremely rare. If caught, they will not be able to go back to Bastoy.