Among the many
questions that remain over why and how a gunman was able to kill at least 76
people in Norway on Friday, perhaps nothing is more infuriating than the cushy
fate that seems to await Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect. If you're going
to go on a maniacal murder rampage and then not have the decency to include
yourself in the body count -- Norway is the place to do it.
Norway takes the
mantra of rehabilitation to an extreme. Not only are there no death sentences,
there aren't life sentences. The maximum Breivik can
face is 21 years (not per murder, but in total). Yes, there is a caveat that
says a prisoner deemed to still be a threat can have his sentence expanded in five year
blocks -- but in a very real sense, that means he will come up for parole every
five years for the rest of his life -- or until he is no longer seen as a
threat. Few killers in Norway serve more than 14 years.
prison system takes seriously the philosophy that inmates should be treated as
humanely as possible and that jail sentences should be seen less as punishment
than as an opportunity to reintegrate troubled people back into society.
According to the numbers, this approach has some benefits -- only 20
percent of prisoners there eventually return to prison, as opposed to 50 - 60
percent in the United States and Britain. Violent crime is much lower than in
"Both society and the individual simply have to put aside
their desire for revenge, and stop focusing on prisons as places of punishment
and pain," one prison official said last
year. "Depriving a person of their freedom for a period of time is sufficient
punishment in itself without any need whatsoever for harsh prison conditions."
That's a fair
point, but can the theory hold in a case like this? Will Breivik be seen as a
person who can be rehabilitated and returned to society? And if not, what does
the soft Norwegian prison system mean for him?
Wifi and Rock climbing walls
have many jails to choose from (there are only 3,300 incarcerated prisoners in
the whole country, compared to 2.5 million in the United States). Last year,
Norway inaugurated its newest prison -- a campus that embodies its principles
of rehabbing the worst of society.
that include rapists and murderers, Halden Prison -- the second largest in the
country and the most secure facility -- looks more like a sleepaway camp than a
traditional prison -- architects say they purposely tried to avoid an
"institutional feel." When it opened, some news accounts called it the
"most humane" prison in the world. According to a Time magazine story last year:
Halden is spread over 75 acres (30 hectares) of gently
sloping forest in southeastern Norway. The facility boasts amenities like a
sound studio, jogging trails and a freestanding two-bedroom house where inmates
can host their families during overnight visits. Unlike many American prisons,
the air isn't tinged with the smell of sweat and urine. Instead, the scent of
orange sorbet emanates from the "kitchen laboratory" where inmates
take cooking courses.... To avoid an institutional feel, exteriors are not
concrete but made of bricks, galvanized steel and larch; the buildings seem to
have grown organically from the woodlands. And while there is one obvious
symbol of incarceration -- a 20-ft. (6 m) concrete security wall along the
prison's perimeter -- trees obscure it, and its top has been rounded off.
Prisoners' cells include flat
screen TVs, minifridges, and long windows that let in more sunlight. Prisoners
share kitchens and living rooms with sofas and coffee tables. There's a
state-of-the-art gym with a climbing wall and expensive artwork commissioned
for the prison. At other maximum security prisons, inmates have access to the internet,
even in their jail cells.
Prison guards don't carry guns. And they are encouraged to
be outgoing and friendly toward the inmates -- eating together and playing
sports to "create a sense of family," one official said.
Other lower-security prisons in Norway (where violent
criminals tend to end up after a few years) are even cushier -- with tennis
courts, horseback riding, beaches, and ski trails (prisoners can participate in
ski-jumping competitions in the winter at one facility). At an island prison (which
includes murders and rapists as well) inmates work on a farm
and live in "comfortable wooden houses shared between four to six inmates."
Societal criticism of prison life is somewhat faint (most of
the criticism in the past has had to do with the fear that cushy jails could
lure more organized crime to the country (one politician argued that some
of the nicer prisons should "only be for Norwegian criminals.")
Time noted last
summer that: "Norway's cultural values and attitudes toward crime mean the
public sees no need to push for tougher penalties or harsher prisons."
The article also noted, "In Norway,
acts of extreme violence are seen as aberrant events, not symptoms of national
This unprecedented case could make Norwegians reexamine
their thoughts on incarceration. For now, Breivik has been remanded to custody
for eight weeks (he'll be held in isolation
for the first month -- meaning no outside communication with anyone besides his
lawyers). After that, if convicted, the alleged mass killer of at least 76
people may end up in a prison with a lovely rock-climbing wall to keep himself