Just under 50 miles off the coast of Norway’s capital, Oslo, is tiny Bastøy Island. More accurately known as Bastøy Prison, the isle has a legacy of incarceration going back over a century. During that time, conditions have vacillated from brutality that triggered a revolt of young boys, to the humane criminal commune it is today.
Like San Francisco’s Alcatraz, Bastøy Island proved to be a prime natural spot for incarceration, with the natural sea barrier preventing most 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 for the day.
The poor treatment came to a head in 1915, when a group of boys tried to escape. They were caught, but the arrest caused the rest of the youths to riot, burning down a barn in the process. It took the intervention of the Norwegian military, which 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 home was closed, the island was converted to a minimum-security prison that took a more humane 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 that 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 more than 100 inmates living on Bastøy Island are those convicted of rape, murder, and drug smuggling.
Many have raised eyebrows at providing such an experience and calling it punishment, but only 16 percent of prisoners released from Bastøy Prison end up reoffending, compared with Europe’s general average of 70 percent. The prison also sets out to be ecologically aware by having the prisoners care for the natural habitat of the island. The prison governor summed up the philosophy nicely in a 2012 CNN report: “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?”
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