Hardened Criminals Heldáin Freedom: Doing Time on Norway's Island Prison

By Nicola AbÚ

Part 4: The World Out There

In Norway, about a third of prisons are open like Bast°y, and parliament has now ruled that there will be more open prisons in the future. Most people think this is a good idea. For now, at least, as the warden of Bast°y says.

The Progress Party, which supports harsher penalties, captured just under 23 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary election. Nilsen finds this development troubling. "There are no easy answers," he says, but there are questions that are posed incorrectly. One such question is whether it should be pleasant in prisons.

The warden is a psychologist, but he doesn't like to dissect people's pasts. His mission is the future. What's the point of punishment, he wonders, if revenge proves inadequate and prisons merely breed new criminals?

Nilsen is no idealist, but a pragmatist. "I'm not a do-gooder," he says, fixing his interlocutor with his blue-gray eyes. "I'm just an egoist who wants to give meaning to his life."

He doesn't see criminals as victims, but as citizens who will return to society one day. "On Bast°y, everyone has to learn to handle his freedom and set his own boundaries," says Nilsen, "which is what they have to do outside, too."

'Training Ground for Responsibility'

Even the sailors on the small ferry are inmates. They set sail for the mainland nine times a day, but no one has ever escaped. Each time they return to the island, a sign greets them that reads: "Bast°y, A Training Ground for Responsibility."

Early the next morning, the sun is still behind the trees but the lights are already on in the buildings. Snowflakes dance beneath the streetlights, transforming Bast°y into a scene from a snow-globe, a seemingly magical world.

Eilertsen is sitting on his bed. A photo of his girlfriend, beguilingly beautiful in a bikini, hangs on the wall. Hanssen, only a few rooms away, is eating his oatmeal.

The guard has arrived to make the morning rounds in the living room. A light bulb needs to be replaced in the hallway. And the walls are a little on the bare side. The prisoners want to hang up some branches and get some posters for the walls.

Eilertsen emerges from one of the red telephone booths, stamping his feet as he walks across the frozen ground. The clouds are as thick as smoke. He has just called his girlfriend and learned that she isn't coming. She's sick, for the first time in two years. He won't be cooking his Thai chicken dish today and his colorfully striped polo shirt will remain folded away.

Eilertsen says that he doesn't care about the big world out there anymore. All he cares about is family, he says.

If anyone were to threaten his family, he couldn't guarantee anything, he says. A man has to protect his family. They could come at night -- one has to be prepared. Eilertsen thinks he'll have to get himself a gun.

'Totally Surreal'

A horse-drawn carriage rolls from the dock into the village. The poplar trees lining the path stretch their lumpy branches into the gray fog.

Hanssen, Eilertsen and the others plan to break a hole into the ice once it's thick enough. Hanssen hopes to go swimming in the icy water, for the first time in nine years. He imagines his pale white body sliding into the water, his heart racing, his breathing speeding up.

"It's all totally surreal," says Hanssen, blinking with his pale eyelashes.

The 10th anniversary of his murder came around recently. The people on the mainland held candlelight vigils and protested against racism, just as they did 10 years ago, after that bloody winter's day that embedded itself into the soul of the nation like a barbed hook.

Hanssen took a bus once when he was on day parole. He had wondered whether people would notice him, whether they would point to him or just look away quickly. "No one recognized me," he says. Maybe, he thinks, it's a good thing. "I'll never commit a crime again," he says.

Hanssen says that he finally wants to experience something when he gets out. There is a map of the world hanging in his room. He wants to see Athens, Italy and a thousand other places.

Yearning for Prison

He doesn't want to live in a big city anymore when he gets out. People in the big city don't relate to each other, he says. He wants to live in a village, like on Bast°y.

Raymond Olsen is sitting on a tree stump in front of the guardhouse. He is smiling. He filled out an application yesterday evening, he says and they'll be picking him up soon. He'll be taken to the mainland on the little ferry and then driven to the prison in T°nsberg, where he'll be welcomed by a fence topped with barbed wire. The metal gate will open for him, and they'll take him to Unit A. There he'll spend 23 hours a day in his cell, with bars and Plexiglas outside the window.

He'll eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the prison. He'll be able to watch the American detective shows he already knows. Maybe he'll write a letter to his mother.

He'll walk around the prison yard for one hour every day. In a few weeks he'll start going to school for three hours a day, in Unit B.

He'll have to ring a bell when he wants to go to the toilet. The guards will accompany him and then take him back to his cell. The heavy iron door will close behind him. Olsen will lie on his bed and feel relieved. He'll feel free.

They'll guard him at T°nsberg. He won't have to be his own guard anymore.

Raymond Olsen lasted all of three days in the world's most liberal prison.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. !!
Naturhuf 02/11/2011
Very interesting...just shows again that letting go of control is often what fosters change and improvement.
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