Is Norway's "luxury" super-max prison really that comfortable?

I’ve seen articles for a couple of years now about Norway’s Halden Prison - the place looks remarkably cushy, with comfortable cells, flat-screen TVs, good gym facilities, and so on. Most recently, Foreign Policy ran a slideshow on the place, on account of the fact that the Oslo shooter is being held there:,0

To judge by this coverage, Halden Prison seems like a genuinely attractive, pleasant place to live. I mean, other than the fact you can’t leave and your neighbors are mostly going to be idiots - and plenty of folks wouldn’t have a problem with either. I can imagine people who genuinely, sincerely would want to live in Halden Prison, especially given a choice between that place and their wretched personal lives.

But this can’t be right, can it? I mean, sure, rehabilitation is a key goal of the Norwegian system, and more power to them - but is this prison actually as pleasant a place as it’s been depicted? Wouldn’t the simple reality of prison - that you’re confining men who’d rather be elsewhere - mean there have to be some fairly harsh, unpleasant aspects to live at Halden?

In short - is Halden actually as cushy as it looks? What’s the Straight Dope?

I guess that my conceptual problem here is that prison traditionally functions, in part, as a deterrent - “Don’t commit crimes, or you’ll go to prison.” But if prison is a desirable place to be, then it ceases to function as a deterrent.

I think perhaps you underestimate the impact of the lack of personal freedom. It seems to me that would outweigh all other concerns, especially in a country like Norway where abject poverty is not quite the problem it is elsewhere.

Also I think your second post has begged the question.

If you assume that prisons are a deterrent then, yes, they need to be unpleasant. But it is not entirely clear that prisons do act as a deterrent no matter how unpleasant. Norway has apparently concluded that prisons function better as rehabilitation than deterrent and that attacking causes of crime is more effective at reducing crime rates.

Wow. I lived for a semester in the dorm at SDSU and it sucked compared to that prison.

Then you have a wrong understanding. Punishment as deterrent does not work. So making prisons hellholes does not decrease crime.

Helping people to turn their lives around - which is what rehabilitation is about - has much better rates at lowering crime long-term, if it’s done right. Which is what the Scandinavian countries are doing.

In addition, in Europe (I presume Norway too) there’s the concept of Human Rights and dignity, which still apply to prisoners. So a minimum of comfort must be provided.

That loosing your personal freedom affects people a lot despite a pleasant surrounding is one way in which prison works. A golden prison is still a prison, as the saying goes; therefore, a prison doesn’t have to look grey and grim to still be a place you don’t want to return to.

Also, cutting people loose from bad friends and influences while helping them explore and learn what they want to do with their life and giving them coping tools helps lower the recidivism rate.

So providing comfort and nice colours on the walls makes it more pleasant than the US hellholes, but the lack of freedom and self-determination still make it unpleasant enough that people start thinking.

It’s a combination of carrot and stick: the carrot is the nice prison and the care of the personnel to help the inmates change; the stick is the isolation in prison from friends and normal life.

As “cushy” as a prison where you are locked into your cell, told when to get up and eat, where to work etc. can be.

The student accommodation block at Stirling University in Scotland was apparently based upon a Swedish prison design.

The comments at the end of the article from the OP’s link are worth reading. Astonishingly level and thoughtful for the most part. Perhaps the main bit of pertinent info is that this particular prison is a halfway house into which prisoners are transferred towards the end of their sentence before being released, and is has a specific function of grooming a prisoner for release back into society. It is also pointed out that most other Norwegian prisons are not nearly so nice. Norway has a recidivism rate one third that of the US. You might regard the Norse system as a mix of deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation. This particular prison is the latter part of the trio. The first two involve a prisoner doing his time somewhere not nearly as cushy.

Wouldn’t the mere fact that your neighbours are among the most dangerous people in the country be enough to preclude the use of ‘cushy’? It sure would for me…

If Norwegian prison life is so cushy that prisoners can’t wait to get back into jail, and prisons in the U.S. are such a wonderfully effective deterrents against crime, why, then, is the recidivism rate in Norway about a third of that in the U.S?

Time magazine article.

The methods may seem unconventional. They also seem to be working.

Halden isn’t the only example: Another is Bastøy prison, which is located on an island in the Oslo fjord, and has no prison walls. This is a very different facility from Halden in that it’s a minimum security prison for much less dangerous prisoners, but it’s also similar: The inmates are surrounded by nature and given access to meaningful activites, both during the working day and in their free time.


OK, have you all reattached those dropped jaws and stuffed your blown minds back up your noses yet? Great, because that isn’t the whole story. It’s worth saying that not all Norwegian prisons are this cushy. Also, despite what you might have read, the Utøya shooter Anders Breivik is not being held at Halden, and is unlikely to ever do any time there. He will most likely be considered a permanent danger to society and be handed a confinement sentence, meaning that his prison term can be extended indefinitely if deemed necessary (making it in effect life without parole), and the only prison that houses this type of dangerous criminal at this point is Ila prison. Which looks like it’s somewhat less of a picnic.

It seems to be designed more ont he “rehab” model. There’s a basic assumption that these people have been failed in some manner by society; crime is seen as the symptom of a deeper illness, and that incarceration time should be used to correct the deficits. Which would in fact be much more true in American society than it is in Norwegian society.

The simple fact is that we are failing our children to such a grand extent that we coudn’t possibly afford to make it up to them.

Screw the US, I should move to freaking Scandanavia and commit a crime to live in a jail. I don’t live this well as a good member of society.

Where does the 20% recidivism figure come from? I’m looking at a website from “Statistics Norway” that appears to be a government source, and if I’m reading it right, it says that the five-year recidivism rate in Norway is 47.2% for all crimes, and 60.8% for felonies.

Saying that “punishment as deterrent does not work” is short-sighted. It should be quite obvious that it is nearly impossible to evaluate to what effect the fear of prison is responsible for people not committing crimes. Crime can be a complex subject and people commit crimes for many different reasons but we would almost certainly see more bank robberies if prison wasn’t the likely outcome. I’m not saying that prisons are likely to stop those who are desperate, despondent, criminally insane, sociopaths, etc…from committing crimes, but basic logic would suggest that the fear of prison must balance criminal tendencies of some. I for one would be far more likely to throw an egg at my neighbors house when they throw a loud party, but I’m afraid of having to deal with the police. Therefore, criminal/court repercussions are deterring me…

People fear losing their freedom. A “nice” prison doesn’t bother me. That person (if indeed they should be locked up) is separated from society and is not going to be relishing their time behind bars. However, I personally would rather have my tax dollars going towards good prison educational programs, so that people are less likely to re-offend when released.

That was Time Magazine’s 2010 number for two-year recidivism rates.

Quoting the article above:

I can see the value in having a rehabilitation-oriented halfway house type thing before prisoners are released, but I can’t really imagine trying to defend that last photo

Seriously? They need million dollar art to rehab these people?

Too funny - I attended Stirling for a year. Live in Murray Hall; a fine dorm. If I could wake up in the morning to look out over the foggy countryside and hear a bagpipe play off in the distance, I would consider prison…:wink:

I feel that the very idea of prison as a deterrent is based on a very, very bleak view of humanity: That we would all be violent rapists and bank robbers unless we were constantly walking around being frightened of consequences. Only an outside threat of possible punishment is keeping us from descending into a state of selfish violence against our fellow men. In this view, the natural state of a man, unless kept in check, is to be a criminal.

Fine, for some people that may be true. I refuse to believe, though, that this applies to the majority. The idea of rehabilitation is that if a person, through education, can be thought how to lead a productive life, and is given a place in society, he will no longer see any need to commit crimes. The temptation will be gone. Leaving peacefully and productively is the normal state. It’s the crime that is the aberration.

I think we can all, to some extent, agree that this is true. A fear of being sent to prison just isn’t the reason most of us don’t commit crimes. We don’t commit crimes because we don’t have to. We don’t feel like doing so. It mostly doesn’t enter our world view. We occupy a place where being a criminal mostly isn’t on our radars.

If this is the case, the role of the prison should be to educate the human being, not punish the criminal, and not to keep the population in fear. They don’t need to be hellholes for that.

(Of course, for certain prisoners who are too far gone to be rehabilitated, or too dangerous to society to be given too much freedom, other principles should probably apply… that don’t involve flat-screen televisions or tennis courts.)


I know a few folks who had accomodations at this four star establishment that would definitely beg to differ with you (yes it is still operational) :dubious:

Medieval gaols aside, I think it depends on the person and the kind of life they were living on the outside. I personally would do (or not do as it were) *anything * to never spend another *hour *incarcerated. There is just simply nothing more unbearable to me than be surrounded by deplorable people from which there is no escape, no matter what the surroundings are like( I didn’t mean that as snobby as it sounds, I just couldn’t think of a better way to say it. Hell, I can’t even stand to have a room mate). Looking out the window(if you’re so lucky) and seeing the outside world that you are no longer a part of. On the other hand there is a reason that some people go back repeatedly; they’ve gotten used to it or it’s actually better than whatever else they have outside.

It’s worth asking- are ALL Norwegian prisons that nice, or are the nice ones made for a specific type of prisoner?

That is, Norway might have some old fashioned, unpleasant prisons for hard-core thieves and killers, but might maintain nicer ones as:

  1. A place for white collar crooks and non-violent ofenders, and

  2. An incentive for the guys in the unpleasant prison to keep their noses clean (“with a few years of good behavior, they might transfer me to the nice spot”).