Treating Prisoners Like Human Beings

I’ve previously discussed my opposition to prisons. Prisons are inefficient and ineffective, as demonstrated by the recidivism rate in most industrial countries. I advocate a private law solution to deal with criminals, which tends to choose solutions that are more efficient and effective. The most egregious use of prisons happens in the United States where prisoners have become a source of slave labor for the federal government and its politically connected cronies. Fortunately other countries have been willing to try alternatives to the United States models and, in doing so, have demonstrated that more effective solutions exist. One of the most interesting cases is the Bastoy prison island in Norway.

The Bastoy prison island is more akin to a village than a traditional prison. Prisoners live in houses, work jobs that help sustain those living on the island, and have a relative amount of freedom to pursue hobbies. Instead of being caged like animals the prisoners on Bastoy island are treated like human beings. What makes this solution even more interesting is the relatively small number of resources required to run the facility:

Thorbjorn, a 58-year-old guard who has worked on Bastoy for 17 years, gives me a warm welcome as I step on to dry land. As we walk along the icy, snowbound track that leads to the admin block, he tells me how the prison operates. There are 70 members of staff on the 2.6 sq km island during the day, 35 of whom are uniformed guards. Their main job is to count the prisoners – first thing in the morning, twice during the day at their workplaces, once en masse at a specific assembly point at 5pm, and finally at 11pm, when they are confined to their respective houses. Only four guards remain on the island after 4pm. Thorbjorn points out the small, brightly painted wooden bungalows dotted around the wintry landscape. “These are the houses for the prisoners,” he says. They accommodate up to six people. Every man has his own room and they share kitchen and other facilities. “The idea is they get used to living as they will live when they are released.” Only one meal a day is provided in the dining hall. The men earn the equivalent of £6 a day and are given a food allowance each month of around £70 with which to buy provisions for their self-prepared breakfasts and evening meals from the island’s well-stocked mini-supermarket.


I ask Thorbjorn what work the prisoners do on the island. He tells me about the farm where prisoners tend sheep, cows and chickens, or grow fruit and vegetables. “They grow much of their own food,” he says.

Other jobs are available in the laundry; in the stables looking after the horses that pull the island’s cart transport; in the bicycle repair shop, (many of the prisoners have their own bikes, bought with their own money); on ground maintenance or in the timber workshop. The working day begins at 8.30am and already I can hear the buzz of chainsaws and heavy-duty strimmers. We walk past a group of red phone boxes from where prisoners can call family and friends. A large building to our left is where weekly visits take place, in private family rooms where conjugal relations are allowed.

By making the island more self-sustaining the Bastoy facility is less of a burden on Norwegian tax victims. As I’ve stated before prisons are a form of collective punishment as they required tax victims to foot the bill to house, guard, feed, and clothe prisoners. This collective punishment aspect of prison systems can be reduced by making prisons more self-sustaining, which Bastoy does. Another benefit to Bastoy is the low recidivism rate:

The reoffending rate for those released from Bastoy speaks for itself. At just 16%, it is the lowest in Europe. But who are the prisoners on Bastoy? Are they the goodie-goodies of the system?

That’s much lower than the 67.5% recidivism rate in the United States. Part of the reason Bastoy’s recidivism rate is so low is likely due to the fact that prisoners are effectively members of society while at the facility, whereas prisoners in the United States are cut off from society. In the form case prisoners haven’t forgotten how to function in society whereas the latter case causes issues as released prisoners often see nowhere to turn outside of prison other than criminal activities (especially when you consider the difficult of gaining employment in the United States after serving a prison sentence).

While Norway’s Bastoy island prison isn’t perfect it certainly seems to be a large improvement over the prison system in the United States and therefore warrants consideration.