What We Can Learn From Norway’s Prison System: Rehabilitation & Recidivism
Updated: Feb 22
In the 1990’s, Norway had a problem. Roughly 70% of all released prisoners recommitted crimes within two years of release. That rate is nearly equal to the recidivism rate in the United States today.
At that time, Norway’s prison system was structured similarly to the prison system in the United States. It was built on the idea that punishment is a deterrent. Prisoners were often given lengthy sentences in harsh conditions to send a message to others.
However, Norwegian lawmakers realized that the existing system wasn’t working. Crime was high, as was recidivism. Prisons were plagued with assaults, riots, and escapes. The system needed reform.
Norway’s government acted boldly, completely overhauling the country’s prison system. Today, Norway's prison system has become a model for the rest of the world, and some states in the U.S. are following Norway’s lead. Norway’s recidivism rate is much lower and prisons are now safer and more peaceful.
An Overview of Norway’s Prison System
Norway has 57 prisons with a total of 3,600 cells, 70% of which are high-security cells. The largest prison has 400 cells, while the smallest has only 15. The average Norwegian prison has 70 cells.
One of the biggest differences between the incarceration systems of Norway and the USA is that Norway does not have large, centralized jails. Instead, Norway utilizes a system of small, community-based correctional facilities that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
There’s a rehabilitative reason for having so many prisons in a relatively small country. The Norwegian government believes that incarcerated individuals should be geographically close to their homes, so they can maintain relationships with spouses, friends, and family.
Many Norwegian prisons allow prisoners to have visitors up to three times per week. They even allow conjugal visits with spouses. There is a strong emphasis placed on relationships so that incarcerated individuals have a strong support system after their release.
Below are some of Norway’s largest prisons:
Halden Prison has been called “incredibly luxurious” and one of the most humane prisons in the world. This maximum security prison sits on 75 acres near the Swedish border. Incarcerated individuals live in single-prisoner cells that are more like dorm rooms than jail cells. Each room has a private bathroom, a flat screen television, and a window that looks over leafy scenery.
The prison has a fitness center, library, chapel, athletic fields, family visiting center, a school, and even a full recording studio. The prison itself is decorated in bright colors and features original artwork. A famous Norwegian artist named Dolk was hired to create bright murals throughout the building’s hallways.
Bastoy prison is unique in the fact that it is an open island prison. That means it does not have fences, walls, or anything to prevent prisoners from simply walking away.
So why do they stay? Because the incentives to stay at the prison are so high. Bastoy is one of the prisons that allows conjugal visits with spouses. It also offers a school, workshops, recreational activities, and anti-violence and drug counseling.
Individuals who attempt to escape are sent to prisons with lower quality amenities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has only been one escape attempt in the history of Bastoy Prison.
Ullersmo Prison is Norway’s largest prison and also home to those prisoners with the longest sentences. It was opened in 1970 and has 400 cells.
While Ullersmo is home to some of Norway’s more violent criminals, it is still focused on rehabilitation. The prison is home to a school as well as workshops to learn skills like automotive repair and carpentry.
The Elimination of Life Sentences
Norway’s criminal reform laws in the 1990s didn’t just overhaul the nation’s prisons, but also the way people are sentenced. Life sentences were eliminated, and were replaced with maximum 21-year sentences.
No matter how violent the crime, until recently, the longest sentence a criminal could receive was 21 years. In fact, convicted mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik was sentenced to 21 years for killing 77 people in 2011. Norway recently amended their penal code to allow for 30-year maximum sentences for certain crimes including genocide, crimes against humanity, and other war crimes.
While Norway can sentence a criminal for up to 30 years, most sentences are not even close to this length of time. More than 60% are less than three months, and almost 90% of sentences are less than a year long.
The Benefits of Norway’s Prison System
Norway’s focus on rehabilitation and restorative justice is certainly radical, but there is no doubt that it has had a positive impact on the country’s crime rate and its economy.
The most profound benefit: Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world. Only 20% of Norway’s formerly incarcerated population commit another crime within two years of release. Even after five years, the recidivism rate is only 25%. In addition, the number of incarcerated individuals has been trending down in the past several years.
Low recidivism isn’t the only benefit. Norway’s rehabilitative approach also benefits the country’s economy. Fewer people in prison means that there are more capable adults available for employment. In fact, many prisoners leave prison with additional skills. The Norway prison system focuses not only on emotional and moral rehabilitation, but also on job skills. That’s one reason why prisoners who were unemployed before prison see a 40% increase in employment rates after prison.
Impact on Norway’s Recidivism Rate
Before Norway’s prison reforms in the 1990s, the country had a recidivism rate in the range of 60% - 70%. Today, Norway’s recidivism rate based on re-conviction within two years is 20%, the lowest rate in the world.
The rehabilitative aspect of Norway’s prison system is credited as a primary factor in the low recidivism rate. Another contributing factor is that Norway seeks to maintain prisoners’ humanity during their time in incarceration.
In a recent interview, Norwegian prison governor Are Hoidal talked about how prisoners are punished in the country. “In Norway, the punishment is to take away someone’s liberty,” he said. “The other rights stay.”
Norwegian prisoners have the right to vote, attend school, learn new skills, exercise, see their families, and even participate in extracurricular activities. In fact, in many prisons, the security officers participate in activities like fitness and yoga right alongside the prisoners.
This is all very deliberate, as Norway’s philosophy seeks to treat prisoners as human beings even as they are incarcerated. This approach is believed to make reentry into society easier. People still feel as valued as other citizens, and they leave prison with skills, confidence, and self-respect so they can become contributing members of society.
Why Norway is Uniquely Positioned to Implement its System
Could Norway’s approach to criminal punishment work in other countries? That’s a tricky question. Other countries and some states in the U.S. have attempted to copy Norway’s strategy. In fact, North Dakota and Oregon have both implemented prison policies based on visits to Norway.
However, it’s difficult to predict whether Norwegian-style prison policies could succeed in the United States or other western countries. One of the biggest factors that makes Norway’s prison system successful is that the approach has widespread support throughout the population. Norway’s citizens believe deeply that the goal of prison should be to help prisoners succeed after release, not to implement punishment that makes life more difficult.
Another factor is economics. Norway spends $93,000 each year per prisoner in its system. It may be effective to focus on rehabilitation in prison, but it isn’t cheap. By contrast, the United States spends a third of that amount, $31,000. How would citizens in other western countries feel about a policy that increases spending 300% and improves living conditions for criminals? It would likely be a divisive proposal in the United States and many other countries.
Norway’s prison system may be different, but it’s clearly effective in terms of crime reduction, economic impact, and rehabilitation. The amenities of Norway’s prisons, like flat screen televisions and yoga classes, get the headlines, but the real key to the strategy is in the underlying philosophy. Prisoners in Norway lose their liberty, but they don’t lose their humanity and dignity.
The approach has clearly paid dividends, as Norway has the lowest recidivism rate in the world and one of the lowest crime rates in the world. The country pays a significant amount each year to support each incarcerated individual, but it also has one of the smallest prison populations in the world. Norway ranks fourth-lowest, with 54 people per 100,000 in prison.
While Norway provides a roadmap to lower crime for other countries, it’s unclear whether the strategy could be effective elsewhere. Norway’s nationwide support for rehabilitation in prisons is unique and runs counter to the sentiment in many countries that prison is for punishment only.
It is encouraging that states like Oregon and North Dakota have sought to learn from the Norwegian system, but there is much work to be done in the United States and other western countries before they see benefits similar to those in Norway’s prison system.