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Inside the World’s Most Humane Prison

 

 

Halden is one of Norway’s highest-security jails, holding rapists, murderers and paedophiles.

Halden prison smells of freshly brewed coffee. It hits you in the workshop areas, lingers in the games rooms and in the communal apartment-style areas where prisoners live together in groups of eight. This much coffee makes you hungry, so a couple of hours after lunch the guards on Unit A (a quiet, separated wing where sex offenders are held for their own protection) bring inmates a tall stack of steaming, heart-shaped waffles and pots of jam, which they set down on a checked tablecloth and eat together, whiling away the afternoon.

The other remarkable thing is how quiet the prison is. There isn’t any of the enraged, persistent banging of doors you hear in British prisons, not least because the prisoners are not locked up much during the day. The governor, Are Høidal, is surprised when I ask about figures for prisoner attacks on guards, staff hospitalisations, guard restraints on prisoners, or prisoner-on-prisoner assaults. I explain that British prisons are required to log this data, and that the last prison I visited had a problem with prisoners melting screws into plastic pens, to use as stabbing weapons; he looks startled, says there isn’t much violence here and he can’t remember the last time there was a fight.

Since it opened two years ago, at a cost of 1.3bn Norwegian kroner (£138m), it has acquired a reputation as the world’s most humane prison. It is the flagship of the Norwegian justice system, where the focus is on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

There was early speculation that Anders Breivik, currently on trial in Oslo for the murder of 77 people, might end up here, given that there are few high-security options across Norway, but that now looks unlikely, at least for the first chunk of his sentence. If he is judged to be sane, he will probably remain in isolation in the Ila prison where he is currently being held, a former Nazi concentration camp with a less utopian vision. However, the underlying ethos of Halden prison gives an insight into Norwegian attitudes towards justice, one that is under scrutiny as the country assesses how to deal with Breivik.

When Halden opened, it attracted attention globally for its design and its relative splendour. Set in a forest, the prison blocks are a model of minimalist chic. Høidal lifts down from his office wall a framed award for best interior design, a prize given in recognition of the stylishness of the white laminated tables, tangerine leather sofas and elegant, skinny chairs dotted all over the place. At times, the environment feels more Scandinavian boutique hotel than class A prison.

The hotel comparison comes up frequently. Høidal is just back from visiting a British prison and had to stay a night in a hotel off Oxford Street. Happily for the hotel, he can’t remember the name, but he noticed his room was certainly smaller and probably less nice than the cells in Halden. Every Halden cell has a flatscreen television, its own toilet (which, unlike standard UK prison cells, also has a door) and a shower, which comes with large, soft, white towels. Prisoners have their own fridges, cupboards and desks in bright new pine, white magnetic pinboards and huge, unbarred windows overlooking mossy forest scenery.

Work of Art

Inside the World's Most Humane Prison

 

To ease the psychological burdens of imprisonment, the planners at Halden spent roughly $1 million on paintings, photography and light installations. According to a prison informational pamphlet, this mural by Norwegian graffiti artist Dolk “brings a touch of humor to a rather controlled space.” Officials hope the art — along with creative outlets like drawing classes and wood workshops — will give inmates “a sense of being taken seriously.”

“There was much focus on the design,” Høidal says. “We wanted it to be light and positive.”

 

The Outside In

Inside the World's Most Humane Prison

The maximum sentence in Norway, even for murder, is 21 years. Since most inmates will eventually return to society, prisons mimic the outside world as much as possible to prepare them for freedom. At Halden, rooms include en-suite bathrooms with ceramic tiles, mini-fridges and flat-screen TVs. Officials say sleeker televisions afford inmates less space to hide drugs and other contraband.

Obviously the hotel comparison is a stupid one, since the problem with being in prison, unlike staying in a hotel, is that you cannot leave. Even if the prison compound has more in common with a modern, rural university campus, with young and enthusiastic staff (who push themselves around the compound on fashionable, silver two-wheel scooters), the key point about it is that hidden behind the silver birch trees is a thick, tall concrete wall, impossible to scale.

Home Away from Home

Inside the World's Most Humane Prison

Every 10 to 12 cells share a kitchen and living room, where prisoners prepare their evening meals and relax after a day of work. None of the windows at Halden have bars.

Given the constraints of needing to keep 245 high-risk people incarcerated, creating an environment that was as unprisonlike as possible was a priority for Høidal and the prison’s architects. “The architecture is not like other prisons,” Høidal says. “We felt it shouldn’t look like a prison. We wanted to create normality. If you can’t see the wall, this could be anything, anywhere. The life behind the walls should be as much like life outside the walls as possible.”

Free Time

Inside the World's Most Humane Prison

Security guards organize activities from 8:00 in the morning until 8:00 in the evening. It’s a chance for inmates to pick up a new hobby, but it’s also a part of the prison’s dynamic security strategy: occupied prisoners are less likely to lash out at guards and one another. Inmates can shoot hoops on this basketball court, which absorbs falls on impact, and make use of a rock-climbing wall, jogging trails and a soccer field.

Prison Yard

Halden’s architects preserved trees across the 75-acre site to obscure the 20-ft.-high security wall that surrounds the perimeter, in order to minimize the institutional feel and, in the words of one architect, to “let the inmates see all of the seasons.” Benches and stone chessboards dot this jogging trail.

Inside the World's Most Humane Prison

There are no plans for a swimming pool, but Høidal does want to make a jogging track through the woods, and a young sports teacher (who is working on specialised programmes for recovering drug addicts) says he hopes to start rock climbing lessons in the summer.

I wonder if it’s a good idea to teach inmates how to scale rock faces, but he responds with hurt amazement. “There would be no security risk. I wouldn’t be teaching them how to escape.” So far there have been no escapes, or attempts.
Splash of Color
Inside the World's Most Humane Prison

The prison’s exterior features earthy brown hues that help it blend in with the surrounding woodlands. Inside, however, the walls explode with color. Halden hired an interior decorator who used 18 different colors to create a sense of variety and stimulate various moods. A calming shade of green creates a soothing atmosphere in the cells, while a vivid orange brings energy to the library and other working areas. A two-bedroom guesthouse, where inmates can host their families overnight, includes a conjugal room painted a fiery red.

More than Turnkeys
Inside the World's Most Humane Prison

Norway’s prison guards undergo two years of training at an officers’ academy and enjoy an elevated status compared with their peers in the U.S. and Britain. Their official job description says they must motivate the inmate “so that his sentence is as meaningful, enlightening and rehabilitating as possible,” so they frequently eat meals and play sports with prisoners. At Halden, half of all guards are female, which its governor believes reduces tension and encourages good behavior.

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