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Brooklyn, New York (VBS.TV) -- Last year, Vice visited Norway to get a firsthand look at the country's famously progressive prison system. We'd heard stories of lax treatment of hardened criminals, and the most sensational (and entertaining) reports evoked images of wardens and inmates spending their days arm in arm, whistling nursery rhymes while skipping through fields of flowers.
In reality, though, Norway's approach is a radical version of the principles that fuel prison systems around the world: punish the crimes, rehabilitate the offender. America, of course, leans more heavily on the former. In Norway, where life sentences don't exist, and even the worst offenders usually serve no more than 21 years, the focus is distinctly on the latter.
The jail we visited, Bastøy Prison, is located about an hour from Oslo, on the small, scenic Bastøy island. Norway's unique philosophy is evident from the get-go. In order to reach the prison, visitors are ferried to the island on a small ship manned almost exclusively by prisoners themselves. They dock the boat on the mainland, greet visitors (mostly family members, and the occasional gawking foreign journalist), and help them from dock to ship. It's enough to make you wonder why they don't bolt the moment they hit the mainland -- until you get to the prison itself.
At first blush, Bastøy is more summer camp than correctional facility. Swimmers enjoy the island's beaches while others stroll the island's farms, tending to horses and taking care of daily chores. Prisoners bunk in shared cabins that dot the island, and large soccer fields sit between the clusters of housing. None of the trappings of a typical American prison are evident: no walls, no crowded cells and no armed guards. Instead, a quiet calm pervades the island. It's easy to forget that you're amongst some of Norway's most hardened criminals.
We spent our day at Bastøy speaking with both prison officials and inmates, all of whom stressed that in order to successfully change a criminal, an institution like Bastøy is critical: somewhere to reflect, interact and learn new skills. Many prisoners and prison officials reminded us that in Norway, where everyone on this island would one day be integrated back into society, rehabilitation was necessary. Indeed, it often seemed like folks we spoke to were reading off a script -- and they certainly may have been -- but it was hard to argue with results (Norway has a significantly lower recidivism rate than the United States). We left thinking that Norway might just have it right.
Now, in light of the July terror attacks that left 77 people dead, can Norway's humane approach to prison truly reform mass murderers? And -- more importantly -- should it? These are questions without easy answers, and just some of the many with which Norway is currently grappling.