The World’s Most Humane Prison, in Theory

Prisoners at Bastøy

The initial reason that led me to start this blog 6 months ago, was to share with you the results of my Master’s dissertation. I wanted to create a space where my work and ideas could be easily accessible to others and prevent it from collecting dust on my bookshelf. Having doven into the blog creation first, now it is time for me to share with you the story of the world’s most humane prison: Bastøy.

My dissertation research was originally done with the goal of developing a self-sustaining prison model to be implemented  in the Netherlands. Taking the example of Bastøy, world’s most famous example, I theorized its functioning and investigated the possibilities for implementation in an existing Dutch prison institution. Here I want to share with you parts of the theory.

Welcome to Bastøy

Bastøy Island

An idyllic island with colourful bungalows two miles of the Norwegian coast is home to 115 Norwegian prisoners. The 1 square mile island does not have fences as the water surrounding it creates a natural border. The prisoners living on the island have varied backgrounds and criminal records, as their cooperative behaviour and motivation determines if they can serve part of their sentence – usually the last two years – on the island.

The prisoners stay in wooden bungalows of 4-6 people, sharing a living room and kitchen but maintaining their privacy in their own bedrooms. These houses do not have bars in front of the windows or locks on the doors. This setting transmits the opposite image than that of a place of punishment, and that is exactly its goal. According to Bastøy first governor, Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, “the prison seeks to resemble a village rather than a prison”.

Labour & Autonomy

Bastøy Prison is built according to the idea that prisoners should be in full contact with their (natural) surroundings. Their work provides for the island community’s daily needs in one form or another: the prisoners grow their own crops, prepare their own food and recycle most of their garbage. Next to the cycle of food provision, they take care of other needs by for example repairing their own household defects, but also caring for horses and teaching music. This self-reliant approach does not only reduce the costs of the prison, but also makes it ecological. But above all it provides prisoners with new skills that they can use upon release.

By involving prisoners in the daily labour routine that sustains their own community, prisoners are given a stake in the quality of life inside the prison. Their work is indispensable for the self-sustaining environment, which increases their sense of responsibility and self-worth. Maybe even more important, their work at Bastøy helps them battle the loss of autonomy. Being one of the main pains of imprisonment, autonomy is normally one of the first things that is limited when entering a prison. Just imagine losing your name for a number, your personal clothes for a grey jogging outfit and no longer having a say over what you will do in your day.

Community & Power

Bastøy is more than a prison farm providing for the prisoners’ daily needs. To create a well-functioning island community, the prison management encourages a close relationship between staff and prisoners by limiting the control and providing space. This is reinforced by having staff and inmates communicate on a first-name basis instead of using titles and numbers, as is common in many other prisons. Their relationship is further encouraged by the large amount of space they shared. Tradition prisons show clear distinctions between staff territory and the territory prisoners are permitted to enter. The lack of closed-off spaces encourages encounters between staff and prisoners and thus preventing alienation.


The 3-daily count is the only visible form of control on the fence-free island. During the day, prisoners are free to roam the island and can choose when to interact with others, prisoners or staff. Nonetheless, various forms of ‘soft power’ are noticeable at Bastøy. Rewards are given to those well-behaving, and punishment (such as taking away the permission to leave the island on special occasions) is applied when not following the prison’s rules. Furthermore, staff appeal to their legitimacy when interacting with the prisoners: they remind them often that Bastøy is a reward to be cherished.

Prison Pains

The effect of the self-sustaining prison model seems to reduce the pains of imprisonment, such as the loss of autonomy, by providing the prisoners with skills, responsibility, and self-worth. Nonetheless, the island remains a prison. The pains of imprisonment are merely substituted by pains of freedom.

As Bastøy resembles life outside prison to such a large extent, the clear distinction is lost and prisoners experience a sense of confusion about their role. Furthermore, the large degree of freedom is experienced as ambiguous or bittersweet: prisoners are allowed to go wherever they want, but then cannot leave the island. The view of the main land reminds them of  everything they do not have.

“Although there are no bars here, there are bars in my head.”
-Prisoner at Bastøy

The absence of physical restrictions on the island, such as bars, fences and locks, requires prisoners to apply a strong sense of self-discipline, appealing to their governmentality. For example, the fear of losing their relative freedom makes prisoners overly safe in their actions.

“When I go for a jog, I never go round the prison parameter but stay at least a couple of meters from the edge. I would rather do two small circuits than one big one, because I don’t want to jog outside the prison grounds. It is silly I know, but that’s just what I do. Better to be overly safe, you know.”
– Prisoner at Bastøy

It takes an island…

So when Bastøy offers certain freedoms to its prisoners, it is not a holiday resort and the pains resulting from exclusion and exile remain. But the self-sustaining prison is showing results: its reoffending rates are amongst the lowest in the world. Bastøy shows that when it takes village to raise a child, it takes an island to rehabilitate offenders.

3 thoughts on “The World’s Most Humane Prison, in Theory

  1. Sien, Het blijft een geweldig verhaal. Zeker de man (er zitten toch alleen maar mannen?) die vertelt dat hij liever twee kleine rondje jogt dan een hele grote ver weg van de ‘gevangenis’. Het is eigenlijk net als met het opvoeden van kinderen: geef ze de ruimte en vrijheid om zelf te besluiten en ervaren. Dat maakt ze verantwoordelijk en dat leidt (oh, wat een wonder) tot gedrag…..tsja, hoe zeg ik dat… tot aangepast/gewenst/verantwoord gedrag (kan even het juiste woord niet vinden)… Ga je nog door met je blog in Ecuador? Of ben je daar nog niet uit? Kus, Mama


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