I’m philosophically opposed to imprisoning non-violent offenders who aren’t a threat to others. I believe people need to provide restitution for wrong-doing and to make amends and give back; but punishment for punishment’s sake has always seemed childish to me, using tax-payer money unwisely, providing little or no rehabilitation and offering scant hope for positive change. For criminals who are a danger to society, however, I’ve supported imprisonment, believing that’s it’s the only way to ensure that society is protected.
But maybe that’s not true.
I recently learned about the Bastoy prison in Norway, where 115 prisoners, some of whom are murderers and rapists, live without bars or barbed wire. Set on a one square mile island, the inmates live relatively free lives. While they are not permitted to leave the island and must appear for a head count four times a day, little could stop them if they chose to walk across the frozen ice in the winter, or swim in the summer, to the mainland just two miles away. But in the 20 years this “alternative” prison has existed, they haven’t had anyone leave. Prisoners must apply to Bastoy to live a different sort of prison life, one in which they work (and are paid), are part of a community, grow food, compost, build, cook, do their laundry and live a relatively normal village life. In the evenings, only five guards remain on the island.
Only 16 percent of Bastoy inmates become repeat offenders, compared to 20 percent of Norway’s inmates as a whole. Norway’s recidivism rates are far lower than in the U.S., where the U.S. Bureau of Justice reports: “Among nearly 300,000 prisoners released in 15 states in 1994, 67.5% were rearrested within 3 years,” and “Released prisoners with the highest rearrest rates were robbers (70.2%), burglars (74.0%), larcenists (74.6%), motor vehicle thieves (78.8%), those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4%), and those in prison for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2%).”
As someone who promotes solutions to complex challenges and solutionary education, I find Norway’s approach intriguing and compelling. If the goal is to provide the most effective, practical, efficient and fiscally wise approach to tackle the thorny problem of criminals and imprisonment, Norway seems to have come up with a positive solution that is cost-effective, positive, successful and humane.
I love learning about such programs and approaches that offer good solutions to complex and vexing problems. It reminds me that each of us has the capacity to bring a solutionary lens to seemingly intractable problems within our purview, whether we work in health care, education, politics, law, engineering, planning, construction or any other field. When we bring our wisdom, skills and passions to bear upon the issues that most deeply concern us, anything is possible.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and dynamic resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of randy OHC via Creative Commons.