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

By Nicola AbÚ

No bars. No walls. No armed guards. The prison island of Bast°y in Norway is filled with some of the country's most hardened criminals. Yet it emphasizes self-control instead of the strictly regulated regimens common in most prisons. For some inmates, it is more than they can handle.

Freedom beckons on the opposite shore, where the lights glitter at night like rhinestones. The two-mile trip by boat to the mainland takes less than 10 minutes.

The boy isn't crying, the tears underneath his eyes are tattoos. He is standing in the snow, tall and broad, not knowing where to go at first. The guards took him from his cell to the ferry, which brought him to this island -- without handcuffs. Once he was there, he was left to his own devices, surrounded by red and yellow wooden houses and a church tower poking through the treetops. And this is supposed to be a prison.

He was given vouchers for 500 kroner (€63), so that he could go shopping in the small supermarket. He encounters men along the way who greet him, but Raymond Olsen lowers his gaze. He has been in prison seven times. People don't greet each other in prison. Olsen buys tobacco and a telephone card, walks into a small red telephone booth and calls a friend -- just like that.

"I'm on Bast°y now. I can use the phone as often as I want. What are you guys doing?"

"We're getting drunk for the party."

Olsen wants to get out of this place. He doesn't want to be here in the world's most liberal prison, on this Norwegian island in Oslofjord, an island so small that it takes less than an hour to walk around its perimeter.

Incentive to Stay

There is only one pistol on Bast°y -- a bronze sculpture in the warden's office.

The warden, Arne Nilsen, is a slim man in his early sixties, a man who doesn't need a uniform to convey his authority. He doesn't know where the pistol came from. It's always been there.

The warden is a man who deals in freedom. He is also a visionary. He wants the men here to live as if they were living in a village, to grow potatoes and compost their garbage, and he wants the guards and the prisoners to respect each other. What he doesn't want is a camera in the supermarket. He doesn't want bars on the windows, or walls or locked doors.

The inmates on Bast°y have been convicted of crimes such as murder, robbery, drug dealing, fraud, violent crime and petty theft. "We don't pick out the mild cases," says Nilsen. Some inmates serve their entire sentences on the island. Murderers can only apply to be transferred to the island once they have served two-thirds of their sentences elsewhere. Some 115 prisoners live on Bast°y, and those who wish to stay are required to work and integrate into the community. Anyone caught drinking alcohol or fighting is thrown out.

The ferry operates on a regular schedule. It would be possible to swim to the mainland or find a boat in the summer, and the ocean often freezes over in the winter. The idea is that the prisoners should have an incentive to stay, and that they are still there when the count is taken -- four times a day.

Few Opportunities Left in Life

Jorgen Eilertsen, a former drug dealer, is sitting in the cafeteria. "The fish is good," says Eilertsen, as he slices into a char fillet. Eilertsen is very enthusiastic about life on Bast°y, because he knows that he is someone who has few opportunities left in life.

During the group meal, which is served once day, the inmates in the room include a man with an iPod, who stole two paintings by Edvard Munch from a museum, "The Scream" and "Madonna." There is also the boy with dreadlocks, who raped two women.

Eilertsen towers over them all. The knife and fork he is holding look like dollhouse cutlery in his enormous hands. He chews his food and stares out of the window. He sits alone at the table by choice. Crime is infectious, and his past is an open wound.

Eilertsen used to keep his weapon on his bedside table when he went to bed. The gang was his family, and he would have killed for his family. He sold drugs, snorted cocaine, took speed, swallowed pills and went to techno parties, losing himself in the beat and the swirling lights. Eilertsen used to beat up customers who owed him money, sharpening his reputation in the gang environment. Now 41, he has spent more than a third of his life in prison.

But now Eilertsen has a dream, one free of the impurities of his past. He has a girlfriend who visits three times a week, along with other female visitors. She's a good girl, not someone from his old world. She brings him chocolate and wears thigh-high boots, and her blonde hair is always freshly washed. The two agree that they want to have four children.

'Gangster's Paradise'

Eilertsen and his girlfriend meet in room No. 6 in the visitors' building -- though it could be any one of the identical rooms, lined up like chambers in a honeycomb. Each of the rooms consists of a few square meters of space and contains a couch, a mattress with a plastic cover and next to it a Kleenex dispenser.

Raymond Olsen, the boy with the tear tattoo, doesn't have a girlfriend who could visit him. The name "Nicoletta" is tattooed onto his arm, but that was a long time ago. He is now 28, a shoplifter, thug and petty thief with a round, childlike face.

He is standing in the barn, wearing a red snowsuit. A piece of driftwood hangs on the wall. Someone painted a fish, a sailboat and seagull onto the driftwood, and the words "Bast°y -- Gangster's Paradise."

This paradise has been around for 20 years -- and has a warden who loves statistics. The numbers, after all, prove him right. Only 16 percent of the prisoners in this island jail become repeat offenders in the first two years after leaving Bast°y as compared with 20 percent for Norway as a whole. In Germany, where recidivism is measured after three years, the rate is 50 percent.

The warden also feels vindicated because there has never been a murder or a suicide on the island -- and because no one left Bast°y last winter even though the sea ice was frozen solid.

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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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