As victim testimony wound up on Tuesday, Norwegians continued to debate whether Anders Behring Breivik is mad or evil. Are people beginning to question their country’s vaunted justice system?
Norway shuns capital punishment and doles out no sentence longer than 21 years. But Breivik horrified the country last July by killing eight people in Oslo with a bomb and another 69 in a shooting spree on the island of Utoya, and again with his recent calm, graphic description of his acts. Now, “in the privacy of their homes there are many Norwegians who say we should have given Breivik ‘one bullet,'” says Atta Ansari, a journalist with NRK, Norwegian state television, who has just made a TV series about Norway’s justice system.
As testimony continues in Norway, Ansari says it troubles many Norwegians that the country is spending so much money on the trial and extra security. It also troubles them that even if given the maximum sentence, Breivik could be free by age 54.
“Holiday camp” rehab
Norway’s approach to crime and punishment is based on rehabilitation, not retribution. The country’s justice officials sound like moral philosophers, not prison wardens. “The philosophy behind sentencing is loss of freedom, not loss of dignity,” says Andreas Skulberg, deputy director at Norway’s Ministry of Justice and Police. “You see, prison causes so much harm. There is a high chance that people coming out of prison will be more dangerous than before, if you don’t have a humane prison regime.”
Skulberg: “You’re not sentenced to lose your civil rights…”
Little wonder Norway’s High Security jails have been compared by visitors and journalists to “holiday camps.” The cells in Norway’s newest High Security jail, Halden, resemble a small hotel, each equipped with flat screen TV and en suite facilities. They might not have mini-bars but every cell has a fridge. The building has won an interior design award, the entrance hall displays prisoner art and there’s a sport area and a music studio. At Halden convicted murderers and rapists share meals and play sport with prison staff.
Halden is a million miles away from America’s concrete “supermax” prisons, now widespread. There are 80,000 offenders in solitary confinement in supermax prisons, mostly run by states (the federal government operates only one such prison, in Florence, Colorado). Prisoners are limited to just one hour a day outside. They don’t share meals, but instead have food delivered through ports known as “chuck holes.” The New York Bar Association says that many supermax inmates suffer “extreme sensory deprivation” which “constitutes torture under international law.”
While Halden compares favorably with an American low security or white-collar prison, a Norwegian low-security jail like Bastoy simply has no equivalent in the U.S. [See a visit by U.S. filmmaker Michael Moore, starting at 4:23].
Cushy yet effective
Norway’s prisons might seem cushy to Americans, but its prison authorities argue that “loss of freedom” and separation from friends and family outweighs the apparent privileges inmates enjoy. The Norwegians must be doing something right. Most Norwegian prisoners don’t return to a life of crime as readily as in the USA. Recidivism after two years stands at just 20 percent compared with 50 to 60 percent rates in America and the UK. (Although the remand rate rises with the passage of years).
True, Norway is not the U.S. Norway is flush with oil money and with a population of just 5 million has the highest standard of living in the world. But prisoners come from backgrounds similar to those in U.S. jails. At Ila, near the capital of Oslo, where Breivik is currently held, 75 percent of inmates dropped out of school between the ages of 11 and 14 and suffer or have suffered from drug and alcohol addiction. Some 40 percent of inmates are rapists or child sex offenders. The U.S. would not put them into a hotel-like environment.
Skulberg: “To be in prison causes so much harm…”
Indeed, a study published in The Stanford Progressive asked whether a High Security jail like Halden could ever exist in the U.S. “This grand experiment raises the question: would this work in the United States? Unfortunately, the answer is probably ‘no.’” The study concluded that it would be an insult to law abiding citizens, many of whom live in conditions worse than in Halden.
“The USA has opted for a police-state model of social control,” says Paul Wright, editor of Vermont-based Prison Legal News. “No lip service is being paid to the idea that prisons are here to help people. We are hugely different from Norway, Finland or Holland, even Germany, where there is less social inequality.”
The Breivik paradox
Norwegians don’t want a U.S.-style system. But they also aren’t eager to have Breivik spend the next 21 years reclining on a sofa at Halden. Ironically, Breivik himself called the maximum 21-year jail sentence ‘pathetic’ and told the court they should ‘acquit’ or ‘execute’ him. Norway abolished the death penalty in 1979.
Will Breivik, through some evil twist of fate, goad Norway into damaging the very values that have made it a peaceful and tolerant country?
Perhaps not. Norway does have another option, a system for extreme offenders called Preventive Detention. It was introduced in 2002 for serious criminals at high risk of re-offending and for remand prisoners, ostensibly to stop them communicating with friends and family during a police investigation. Under Preventive Detention, Breivik could be put behind bars indefinitely and in solitary confinement for up to five years.
“Our remand wings are like American supermax jails,” complains Thomas Ugelvik, a prison ethnographer at the University of Oslo, “not when it comes to the use of technology, but prisoners can be shut in cells for 23 hours a day, for months.”
In fact, such prisons are tough enough that they got nice little Norway slapped by the Council of Europe’s Committee Against Torture and Inhumane Treatment. Strangely, at the same time, the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” was given a thumbs-up by the European Court of Human Rights. That will allow the U.S. to push forward with plans to extradite five suspect terrorists currently held in the UK.
Norway’s dark side
Despite all the breathy talk of Halden, Breivik is unlikely to go there. Where he is now, Ila Detention and Security Prison, was built in the 1930s and used by the Nazis as a concentration camp. If Breivik is placed in Preventive Detention he’ll likely remain in a secure wing here or in Trondheim. If Breivik is found insane, he will likely go to Dikemark, a forensic psychiatric unit criticized by the Council of Europe for its “non-medical use of restraint beds.”
So how does one explain this paradox in Norway’s liberal and humane justice system?
Skulberg says the Norwegian government takes the Council of Europe’s criticism very seriously and has already made changes: “It’s not healthy to be in solitary confinement for too long. You need human contact with staff to compensate for the damage solitary confinement brings.”
He also says if Breivik is sentenced to Preventive Detention, there will be extra staff on hand to provide conversation, to “play chess or cards” with him. He would get his own prison bookmobile, since Norwegian prisons must provide education to inmates. Rehabilitation remains Skulberg’s goal, even for the likes of Anders Breivik.
“It is our goal that he (Breivik) will eventually be with other inmates.”
This is ‘supermax’ Norwegian-style. Will it satisfy ordinary Norwegians? On that question the jury is out.