HALDEN, Norway—Tor has never been to the United States. But he's seen TV programs about American prisons on National Geographic—the violence, the squalid living conditions, the lengthy sentences. More like horror movies than documentaries.
The 39-year-old former drug dealer shook his head as he remembered what he saw. “It’s crazy,” he told me, sitting in his own prison cell at Halden Prison in southern Norway and wearing an American flag T-shirt. “It’s a different world."
Then Tor reached over to the mini-fridge in his private, one-man room, grabbing a bottle of juice. He had watched National Geographic on his personal flat-screen TV, in another corner of the cell. On one wall was a door to his private bathroom; on the other was a wide window looking down on a pleasant woodland view. Across the prison’s open-air campus was an activity center with an art room, chef school, and state-of-the-art music recording studio.
A visit to Halden Prison, a maximum-security facility holding 259 male inmates convicted of crimes like murder, rape, and drug dealing, challenges just about every American assumption of what a prison looks like, how it should operate—even what it is. Behind the nice amenities, however, the prison is also unique for its philosophy about how to incarcerate people, one that the United States could learn a lot from.
“This prison is built around a principle we call the normality principle,” said Are Høidal, the grey-haired, grandfather-like warden, who has been working here since the prison opened in 2010. “We want to make our own society behind the wall," a society as close as possible to the "normal world" outside of prison. The idea is to make the transition out of prison as effortless as possible.
The prison guards think of their institution as a school to teach inmates how to live normal, peaceful lives in the outside world. “Much of what we’re doing is to train inmates to start a new life,” Høidal said. “From day one we start planning their release, their future.”
Every inmate has a job or education waiting for them when they're released in order to ease the transition to the free world. While in prison, they work on their "future plan," a thick notebook outlining what they want their life to be like once they get out. At the end of the book is a statement that’s part aspiration, part promise: the inmate will never come back to prison.
“They treat me like a human,” Tor said. “There’s a possibility to become a better person when you get out.”
As I walked around the prison with Høidal one day earlier this summer, birds chirped and a slight breeze blew through the air. The atmosphere was calm and tranquil—during July, the prison goes on “summer vacation,” with inmates spending more free time in their living units while guards take their holidays and some activities are pre-empted.
The quiet activity center, where inmates come every day for classes, is clean and sleekly designed. Shafts in the ceiling bathe the hallways with daylight. Big, warehouse-like rooms hold classrooms for carpentry, furniture construction, metalworking, and car repair. Inmates learn to fix guards’ vehicles, and construct cabins that are sold to campers. While they're rolling under cars and pounding out wood walls, they’re watched only by a teacher, no guards hovering over them.
Opening some of the heavy grey doors in the activity center can feel a little like peeking through portals to the outside world. Behind one is a fully stocked supermarket, with fresh and frozen foods that inmates cook themselves in their own kitchens. Another reveals a pottery workshop, with clay pots of all shapes and sizes lined up on shelves, patiently waiting for the kiln. Down the hall, a door opens to a restaurant where inmates learn to cook and serve food.
The chef of the prison restaurant is a big-bellied inmate named Fioan, who’s from Kosovo. (About 40% of the prisoners are from outside Norway; most are in for drug trafficking, in part because of the prison’s proximity to the Swedish border.)
Fioan, 32, has studied cooking during the eight years he’s been in prison. He got a certificate to be an assistant chef and is now leading the inmates working at Halden's restaurant, selecting dishes and training the team on how to chop vegetables and braise meat. Last year, they published a cookbook (titled Decent Food) and served 200 people. This year, Fioan is planning a series of seasonal menus.
“We have all the tools we need to learn to be on our own,” he told me, taking a break from cooking dinner for some friends. He said he likes “just having a chance to do something else, to stop the monster you’ve been before.” When he gets out, he wants to either open his own restaurant or become a history teacher.
The most stunning room in the activity center is the music recording stuio. It’s dominated by a massive, state-of-the-art sound board. Eight gleaming guitars stand on a rack above—inmates can borrow them and take them back to their rooms—and a full drum set and a few electric basses are inside. Inmates learn to compose and produce their own music, and several inmate bands have created CDs under a label called Criminal Records. Here's one song, "Sporhund" (bloodhound), performed by the inmate group Kenth & The Ravens:
Høidal said finding an inmate's passion can help them center their lives. “Here we make rockstars,” he said with a grin. “When you get out of prison, you should not only work, you need new interests. Music can be one of the new interests. You live 24 hours.”
Across the campus is a big gym with a colorful climbing wall and weight machines built by inmates at the metal shop. Marius, a bearded prison guard dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants, is one of two physical education teachers. “It’s always positive to be here. We play with them, play football and stuff, and it’s high-fives, claps on the shoulder,” he said. “It’s very rare we have any fights.”
No one has ever tried to escape from Halden, according to Høidal. “They want to finish their sentence and start a new life,” he said.
The places in the prison that are most wildly different from American prisons are the living units, which feel like dorms that would make college students quiver with envy. The cells, decked out with TVs and minifridges, are more spacious than typical U.S. prison cells, especially in the private bathrooms.
In the common room of a unit for prisoners undergoing drug addiction treatment, inmates hung out on couches, playing cards, drinking coffee, reading the paper, and playing FIFA on an Xbox 360. Across the hall, an inmate laid his laundry on a drying rack while a cooking show played on a big-screen TV. Each unit has full kitchens with stocked fridges and silverware, and large carving knives tied to the counter.
Tor, the inmate who watched National Geographic, is a member of the drug treatment wing, which houses about a dozen inmates and gives them special programs and counseling. He’s been trying to kick his addiction: he stayed clean for two and a half years, until his fiancé left him with his four daughters. That sent him over the edge and into prison, he said.
When he gets out, he’s going to get a plumber certificate, and will have his training all set up before he leaves. (There are five employees at the prison whose entire job is to help inmates get education and jobs when they're released.) For now, Tor's biggest goal is to build his relationship with his four daughters, whose photos cover his wall. “They need their father, I need to be their father again,” he said.
In one of the most mind-boggling moments of my visit, another inmate living down the hall, Daniel, pulled a key out his pocket. “It’s my own key to my own cell,” he said with a grin. Although inmates are locked into their cells at some times of the day, they are otherwise free to come and go, and lock their rooms behind them if they wish. Their rooms are their own private space. There are no video cameras watching them.
Daniel, 28, is serving time for drugs and breaking parole. He’s also been in and out of prison, but is determined to not return again. Last time, he said, “the old life caught up with me, you know, I had some unfinished business with some people. It made me have to do some choices. But this time, I don’t have unfinished business with no one. I have my girlfriend waiting for me.” She visits him almost every week. “The time goes so fast,” he said.
He said he has a good relationship with the prison guards. Every inmate gets their “contact person,” a guard who is dedicated to helping them and someone they can go to with any problems. That system is possible because of there are almost as many guards as employees, something unheard of in U.S. prisons. In Halden, there are 190 guards for 259 inmates; in the average U.S. prison, the ratio is 6.4 inmates per guard.
“It’s friendly, it’s not like them versus us and us versus them,” Daniel said. “They actually care—or at least they pretend they care.”
Halden has three solitary confinement cells, forbidding and bare, where inmates are kept if they become violent toward themselves or others. But inmates almost never spend more than one night inside, and it's rare for even one of the cells to be occupied more than one night a month, Høidal said.
Family visits are encouraged. In addition to typical visiting rooms for both children and romantic partners, the prison grounds includes a boxy house set aside from the other buildings on a wooded hill. Here, inmates who have shown good behavior and completed a six-week course on being a father can host their families for 24-hour periods. The house has multiple rooms with cribs and bunk beds, a patio, and an expansive view from big windows. It’s basically a training-wheels version of living in a real house with your family.
“It’s different when you get to sleep there with your kids and your family,” Fioan, the inmate chef, said. “Otherwise, when you’re inside, you can’t be part of their life.”
So, are all of the amenities worth it? Thanks in part to policies like those in Halden, Norway has one of the lowest prison recidivism rates in the world. While there isn't specific data available for the prison, only 20% of inmates released from Norwegian prisons in 2005 received a new prison sentence within two years, according to a study conducted by the Correctional Service.
That’s far lower than the most similar U.S. rate: about 60% of released American inmates are newly arrested within two years of their release. But it’s difficult to compare the statistics directly, in part because Norway tends to give short prison sentences to traffic offenders, who are less likely to reoffend.
A recent study by Norwegian and U.S. researchers found that for many Norwegian inmates, spending time in prison reduced their likelihood of reoffending in the future because of the job training they received while behind bars. "The Norwegian prison system is successful in increasing participation in job training programs, encouraging employment, and discouraging crime, largely due to changes in the behavior of individuals who were not working prior to incarceration," the authors concluded.
In addition, American inmates typically spend a much longer time in prison than Norwegians do. There are technically no life sentences here—the maximum sentence in Norway is just 21 years, although that can be renewed for the worst of the worst offenders, such as the mass murderer Anders Breivik. (He is kept in a different prison than Halden.)
In any case, there may never again be another prison quite like Halden, even in Norway, which cost $250 million to build and $93,000 per inmate per year to keep running (compared to the U.S. average of $31,000 per inmate per year). Some of the expenses do seem a bit ridiculous: The public art throughout the facility, including several murals by a prominent street artist, by itself cost more than $700,000.
This fever dream of what a prison could be is also possible because of Norway’s generous, oil revenue-funded public sector. Even so, those figures have raised eyebrows in Norway’s new conservative government. Jan Arild Ellingsen, a member of Parliament who serves on the Justice committee, told me future prisons will not be as exorbitant.
“It was a social experiment,” Ellingsen said of Halden. “It was a very expensive experience, and it won’t happen again.”
But aside from the amenities, what makes Halden so special—and so shocking from an American point of view—is its philosophy.
Since Halden opened, a small contingent of criminal justice reformers have flocked here from around the world to learn about the Norwegian corrections system. Høidal remembered when the warden of Attica Prison, a supermax facility in upstate New York, visited Halden.
“What he saw here, he was quite shocked,” he said. “‘Was this a prison?’ he asked. Yes it is. If you ask the inmates, they say it’s nice, but it’s still a prison. That’s important for them—we take the freedom from them. But after that they have a lot of possibilities.”
Høidal thinks the main difference between the U.S. and Norway’s criminal justice system is that the U.S. is too focused on “revenge,” punishing an inmate for a crime. When he deals with inmates, Høidal said, “I don’t think about what they’ve done. I think about their future, what they can do in the rest of their lives.”
Even if American prisons can’t afford to copy the state-of-the-art recording studio or install their own climbing walls, the idea of treating inmates like human beings and working from day one to plan their re-entry to society is a worthy goal.
"I hope the American inmates can have the possibility to get the same opportunities and education we can," Tor said. "I hope America can learn from us.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.