Hardened Criminals Held in Freedom Doing Time on Norway's Island Prison

No bars. No walls. No armed guards. The prison island of Bastøy 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 Bastøy 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 Bastøy -- 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 Bastøy 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 Bastøy, 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 Bastøy, 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 "Bastøy -- 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 Bastøy 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 Bastøy last winter even though the sea ice was frozen solid.

How You Know When They've Broken Your Will

Olsen, the new inmate, is expected to work. He will earn 50 kroner a day and will be paid once a month. He is expected to manage his own food budget, get up every morning, cook his own food and do his own laundry. He doesn't know how he will manage.

He will watch how the other do it: Eilertsen, for example, who failed when he came to Bastøy the first time 20 years ago. After being there for two months, he was told to provide a urine sample -- with a guard watching. They found traces of drugs and he was returned to a high-security prison the next morning. Eilertsen didn't care. "I didn't want to get mixed up with the people here," he says. "My fundamental emotion was hate."

Eilertsen is kneeling on the roof of a wooden hut. His job on the island is to build houses. It keeps him busy, and he hardly ever thinks anymore about how he got here -- or about the couple he beat up merely because they were there.

"I'm too old for that crap," he says.

He knows how it feels to be standing in front of the prison gate on the day of your release, with good intentions in your head and a plastic bag in your hand, containing aftershave and a few articles of clothing.

Enjoyed Being Hunted Down

He was filled with good intentions the last time. While in prison, he eventually realized that it didn't do him much good to just sit there and hate the guards and the pedophiles. He realized that there are only two options in the world of drug dealers: kill or be killed. He went to therapy and tried to understand what it was about breaking rules that appealed to him. He realized that he had enjoyed being hunted down.

Eilertsen found a job in a call center, but he didn't last long. He felt like he didn't belong, and soon, he was living on welfare, with little money and even fewer thrills. His old friends resurfaced, the friends from his former party world. And then there were the clubs, where his bad-boy image made him all the more desirable to women. The clubs were expensive, and soon Eilertsen began doing the occasional favor for his old friends.

When he was caught, he was driving without a valid license and carrying a kilogram of marijuana.

"I'm not proud of it," says Eilertsen, hammering away at the roof of the hut. He applied for Bastøy and has been there for a few months now. This time, he says, he is better prepared for freedom. He learned carpentry on Bastøy, and now he knows how to work with wood and build small houses. He sleeps better than he used to. And he already has a construction job lined up for when he is released.

It is early in the afternoon, and the cows have been taken care of. Olsen, the new kid, is finished with his work. Now he wants someone to tell him what to do next. He misses his cell, and he misses waiting for things -- for a meal, a call or an hour in the prison yard.


Waiting fills the day in a real prison. On the island, time seems frozen in place.

He doesn't want to go back to his room, where there's a new guy from Poland. He walks through the village, past the school, the library and the fields, until he reaches the shore where the little ferry docks. Another 90 minutes before it's time to be counted.

If freedom is in front of you and you don't reach for it, he thinks, that's when you know they've broken your will.

Olsen pulls up the sleeve of his parka to reveal the ends of a tattoo, thick and black, that wraps itself around his arm. He got his first tattoo at 16, after robbing the warehouse of an electronics superstore, and after that he got another tattoo each time he did something illegal. The last time was just after he had robbed a kiosk.

He has so many tattoos by now that the tendrils of black ink reach up to the back of his head. Olsen looks out at the water and thinks about escaping, and about the friend who owns a boat.

Darkness comes early, and the wind seems to be blowing from all directions. Startled crows fly into the indigo sky, cawing loudly.

'Everyone Knows Who I Am'

There are 115 prisoners assembled on the square in front of the police station. The men, laughing and pushing each other, line up behind signs representing each house.

There is one man here you don't play around with, you don't look in the eye and you don't approach -- that's what they tell every new inmate. Thorstein Hanssen (not his real name), 31, stands there, his leg spread apart, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He is wearing gray sweatpants and has a weightlifting belt wrapped around his narrow hips.

A tall man in a uniform calls out the names of the prisoners.

"Jorgen? Muhammad? Peter?"

"Here, unfortunately," one of the men replies.

"Everyone knows who I am," Hanssen says. They used to call him the Military Guy. He was of their leaders, the best fighter in the Norwegian chapter of the white supremacist organization "Blood and Honour." The word "Skinhead" is tattooed onto Hanssen's hands. He plans to have it removed when he leaves Bastøy. It wasn't done well, he says. His head is shaved, and the only evidence of his red hair is the goatee on his chin.

He is here because he murdered a black boy. "This skin color wasn't the reason," says Hanssen. "We were just protecting our property."

'Holistic Fascism with a Bread-Baking Skinhead'

"I didn't stab him, but the others did," says Hanssen. The boy was still breathing when they left him, he adds.

The newspapers wrote that the skinheads had played white power music to get themselves in the mood, and that they went out in search of a victim and found one in the parking garage of a shopping center. The victim, the 15-year-old son of a Ghanaian man, was stabbed to death with two different knives. The murder was planned, cowardly and brutal, the court said. Hanssen, 22 at the time, was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

His neat room is furnished with a desk and a bed covered with flowered sheets, and there are colorful curtains in front of the window, like in all the rooms. But there are no family photos on Hanssen's walls, and there are no men's magazines on the nightstand, just books. Hanssen is studying history and philosophy at the University of Oslo. He takes his exams on the Internet.

Hanssen is permitted to pursue a degree while on Bastøy, but he also has to contribute to the community. Every day, he sweeps and mops the floors of the group house and dusts the shelves. Then he returns to his room.

'I Don't Like Knives'

He reads as much as possible, says Hanssen, books about everything from the storming of the Bastille to the Third Reich. He still wants to fight, he says, against globalization, for the separation of ethnic groups and cultures, and for a peculiar idea he calls "holistic fascism." He says that from now on he intends to carry on his fight exclusively with words.

Heat radiates from the oven as the smell of fresh bread fills the room. Hanssen has been baking. He insists on using whole-grain flour, sunflower seeds and yeast. He reaches for a large knife and cuts off two thick slices of bread. "I don't like knives," he says.

The other men in the group home have cooked eggs and salmon from the supermarket. Hanssen eats in his room.

"I've moved from one cell to another," he says, adding that he spends 90 percent of his time alone. He was in a high-security prison for nine years and spent one of those years in isolation. His eyes glaze over when he talks about it. He refuses to go into therapy. "I had a happy childhood," he says with a smile.

Hanssen's father was the successful owner of a logistics company, and his mother was a social worker. His parents are still married and happy, he says, and they still love their son; it's just that they've never understood him.

Looking for a Purpose

When he was a child, Hanssen wanted to join the military and go to war for his country -- he yearned to be part of a collective. He took his army physical when he was 17, hoping to become a career soldier. But when he started talking about his right-wing visions, the recruiters classified him as a security risk.

Now he lives on Bastøy, together with people from 20 different nations, with Pakistanis, Ethiopians, Indians and Iranians. "We get along fine," says Hanssen. "We respect each other." He applied for the island four times, and he had to fight to be allowed to live there. "It's a good thing for me that we have prisons like this," he says. He notes that he benefits from the system but that his worldview hasn't changed. In fact, he points out, he favors tougher penalties because it's the only way a society can function properly.

Hanssen wants to become a social researcher when he is released in a few years. He hopes to find work on drilling platforms to fund his research, spending a few months here, a few months there. He believes in the uniqueness of his viewpoint, and that his thoughts have to be worth something. He still hopes that society has a need for him.

Physical strength is important to Hanssen. No other inmate on Bastøy can bench press 140 kilos (308 lbs.) in the weight room. He lies on his back and pushes the weight up. Once, twice, three times. The blood rushes to his head and he exhales sharply. Four times, five times. By now, the veins on his forehead are bulging and his chin is twitching.

Full Control

The man with the iPod, the art thief, reaches for the bar and together they guide the barbell back onto the stand. The two men are the best-known prisoners on Bastøy, and they get along well. But they are not friends.

You don't have friends in prison, they say, just people who share your fate.

The gym walls are painted red and pop music is playing on the radio. Hanssen goes to the gym to work out almost every evening, after the count and before the nightly room inspections. He never takes a break, rarely looks in the mirror and presses his shoulders back and his chest forward. He doesn't drink, smoke or take drugs. His body is the territory over which he has full control.

Night falls, and there are only five guards left on the island. The lights of the city of Horten twinkle on the opposite shore. People say that Bastøy is practically a resort, but they don't seem to mind.

The warden is unwilling to make any predictions about Eilertsen, Olsen or Hanssen. He says that his concept doesn't work for everyone. Some people, he says, are too sick emotionally, while others are determined not to allow anything to change their worldview.

Locking people up doesn't do any good, he is convinced, because you can't lock people up forever in a liberal democracy. Reintegration is the important part, not punishment, he believes.

It also reflects years of policy in Scandinavia, where a moderate penal system traditionally goes hand in hand with a strong social state. The north has lower incarceration rates and milder prison conditions than the rest of Europe. It's not like in Germany, which has open incarceration for prisoners nearing the end of their terms. There is, however, no legal right to such a form of detention and only 17 percent of prisoners ever pass through the program.

The World Out There

In Norway, about a third of prisons are open like Bastøy, 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 Bastøy 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 Bastøy, 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: "Bastøy, 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 Bastøy 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 Bastøy.

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 Tønsberg, 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 Tønsberg. 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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