On Thursday, we visited Bastoy Prison, a minimum-security facility on an island three kilometers from the mainland and about an hour from Oslo.
As we walked toward the ferry to the island, I noticed two men dressed in fluorescent clothing operating the ferry. I later came to know these men as Kai and Ole. Kai, who was serving a 13-year sentence for murder, had earned his way to this minimum-security prison. Ole was serving time for a drug charge and had also graduated from a maximum-security prison. Had I not been told, I would never have thought that these men were prisoners: they were clearly professionals who were well-trained at operating the ferry.
Our journey across the water took about twenty minutes. As we landed on the island, I took in the beauty of my surroundings. This did not look like any prison I had ever seen, and it certainly didn’t look like a facility that would house 125 prisoners whose convictions ranged from possession to murder.
We were driven by horse-drawn carriages to the living area of the men housed at Bastoy. Upon arrival, we were asked to turn in our phones to the Correctional Officer that would be our escort for the day. Later we would learn that all the men that are confined to the island can have a cell phone. While they cannot receive any calls on these phones, they are permitted to make calls freely. When I asked the officer about security concerns, his reply was they have all of the information they need right in the phones. e ferry that ca
The structures, dating from the early 19th Century, were all well maintained. As the warden shared the history of Bastoy, we learned that the island was at first a boys’ reformatory that came to be known as Devils Island: the facility was closed, due to the abuse of the children that were housed there. For some time, the island was repurposed and used as a treatment facility for alcoholics. And then, in 1984, the island was converted to a Federal Prison.
Today, each resident is assigned his own room. Though the island is in fact a prison, it doesn’t feel like a prison at all. It’s hard to describe such a beautiful place as anything other than a beautiful island. In addition, the collegial relationship between staff and the men in the system is unlike like anything I’ve ever witnessed in a carceral facility.
Some of what I learned about Norway’s social system in general was mind blowing. College is inexpensive—only about $60.00 per semester—and that’s all the way through attaining a Ph.D. All Norwegians receive free health care, and of course all Norwegians can vote regardless of whether they are incarcerated or not. We were driven by horse-drawn carriages to the living area of the men housed at Bastoy.
So, how does Norway achieve a recidivism rate that is only about half of that of the U.S.: only 25% compared with close to 50% across America—and more than 65% in California?
In a nutshell, the Norwegian justice system recognizes that rehabilitation is key—and that dehumanization of those imprisoned is nothing but counterproductive to attaining that goal.
Thank you for supporting me in my new role as Executive Director at ARC, for taking this journey alongside me, and for agreeing that the U.S. system of criminal justice needs desperately to be reformed. I am grateful for the opportunity to see Norway’s example of what’s possible when you put rehabilitation first. I hope that you will continue to partner us as we seek to apply what we have learned in Norway to fixing our broken system in California.
I grew up in South Central Los Angeles during the height of the gang and crack crisis. At that time, Los Angeles was called "The gang capital of the nation", and I was then a part of the problem. I was a gang member and a crack dealer. By the time I was 17 I had been shot twice, stabbed once, and my mothers house had been shot up by rival gang members. By the age of 18 I was in state prison sentenced to life. On July 12, 2012, after 24 years of incarceration and a court ruling in my favor, I was granted parole.