In Norway, Break the Law and Live by a Beach
BASTOY PRISON, Norway The Web site reads like an advertisement for a vacation home.
"Is Bastoy the place for you?" it asks next to photographs of a sunset sparkling off the tranquil waters of the Oslo fjord and horses pulling sleighs over packed snow.
This wooded island could be -- if you are a rapist, a murderer, a drug trafficker or have accepted a large bribe.
"We try to take a cross-section of the country's prison population, not just the nice criminals," said Oyvind Alnaes, governor of the minimum security prison on Bastoy Island about 46 miles south of the Norwegian capital.
Inmates have included Norway's most notorious serial killer, Arnfinn Nesset, convicted of murdering 22 elderly people when he was manager of a nursing home in the 1970s. He was freed for good behavior after serving two-thirds of a 21-year sentence.
"A lot of people in Norway say that we treat them (the prisoners) too well because they should be punished. But this is the biggest mistake we have been making since the 1600s. Taking this line makes people bad," Alnaes said.
"You have to believe people are born good."
The 1-square-mile Bastoy island offers its 115 "residents" cross-country skiing, tennis and horse-riding, but before the inmates can head off to practice their serve or hit the beach for a swim, there is work to do on the farm.
"We want to become the first ecological prison in the world," Alnaes said. "It's about giving the inmates responsibility (and) trust, and teaching them respect."
Alnaes, who wears jeans and T-shirts to work and is known to the inmates as Oyvind, says this model of open prison is the future. In 1997, he gave Bastoy Prison a new slogan: "An arena of the development of responsibility."
Looking after the island's environment, he says, will nurture this sense of responsibility in the prisoners.
"Ecological thinking is about taking responsibility for nature, the future and how your grandchildren grow up," he said.
Only a handful of cars are used by prison staff on the island and along with the ferry, their engines will be converted to biofuel. The prison's six horses do most of the work, pulling carts driven by the prisoners, waste from the prison is used to generate power while oil heaters are being converted to wood.
The governor's development of responsibility goes further.
"The usual thing is that prisons are all about security," he said. "On the island, inmates work with knives and saws and axes. They need to to do the work. And if an inmates increases his responsibility, you have to give him trust."
Norway has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the world but the justice system does receive some criticism, notably for lengthy pre-trial detentions and cramped holding cells at police stations.
Rather than watching and guarding, the 69 prison employees at Bastoy work alongside the inmates until it is time to go home and from 3 p.m. every day only five remain on the island.
The onus is on the prisoners not to escape
There have been few attempts, when friends have come over in a boat during the night to pick up a prisoner, but Alnaes says making a break for it is not a smart move.
"The prisoners understand that there is nowhere to go if they do escape. What is the alternative? Spend your life on the run or serve your time at Bastoy? And one attempted escape means you lose your right to stay here."
Prisoners have to apply for a place at Bastoy and applicants are vetted to filter out those who could cause the most trouble.
"That is the only place you can watch cable T.V. (in prison)," a short gray-haired man said, pointing to a stone building that houses the prison library.
He watched as a dark-haired youth walked down a path towards one of the prisoners' brightly painted wooden houses. "He killed somebody, that guy. Not sure who, or why, though."
The speaker was Haavald Schjerven, a former U.N. department chief convicted in 2002 of taking $550,000 in bribes.
"It's OK here," he said. "It gives you time to think and reflect and, of course, I enjoy the horse-riding."
Schjerven showed Reuters around the wood-paneled house he shares with seven other criminals, pointing out the floor heating in the shared bathroom.
Norway releases prisoners early if they serve their sentences without trouble, and for the last part of their internment, they are allowed weekend breaks with friends and family.
Schjerven had just returned from a trip to Oslo where he discussed a business plan with a friend.
"It's much calmer here, we have a great sea view and it's only 150 meters (yards) to the beach."
One of the island's beaches is open to the public and is crowded in the summer with day-trippers. It is the only part of the island the prisoners are banned from.
There is no fence to keep curious visitors out but signs warn people against wandering around the island. Nonetheless day-trippers entering the prison are a bigger problem than inmates escaping, governor Alnaes said.