A Prison Without Bars Reminds Us We Can Change Entrenched Systems


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.


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Image courtesy of randy OHC via Creative Commons.


Michael MacDonald

Norway has proven that cruelty does not reform criminals, but rather turns them into hardened criminals like we've been saying all along.
we can't even convince our lawmakers to honor "freedom from excessive punishment" under the legal definition of "freedom from cruel and unusual punishment" in keeping drug users out of prisons even though they are actually just suffering from an illness (addiction). 90 % of drug users are just mentally ill people/people who went through physical/sexual abuse and are trying to self-medicate,
but according to right wing governments
they are poison to society and need to be given more time in jail than pedophiles.
Sounds a lot like illness discrimination to me.
You don't know what I would give just to have them respect that basic right,
but I'm not holding my breath.

Danielle Lenz
Danielle L5 years ago

I agree completely. People make very bad choices, but not because they are awful people. It's because something inside of them is "broken" and needs to be healed. I don't see the use of breaking people down more by locking them away. There needs to be more solutions like this; it should be a time of growth, healing, and learning when they are away from the insanity of the world, not of "punishment."

Natasha Lopez
Natasha L5 years ago


Berny P.
Berny p6 years ago

Love the idea of the island.

But mostly love the idea of prisoners working.

Not one dime of their "care" should come out of my pocket.

They should work so they can pay for their upkeep, housing, food, medical, books, education.

Sounds like a perfect model for real life.

Prison is not supposed to be ...nice....nothing wrong with people paying for their crime!

Lauren F.
Lauren F6 years ago


Hannah L.
Hannah L.6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Bonnie m.
Bonnie mutchler6 years ago

the Norwegians have a completely different attitude. Even after the shooting of all the young people, they did not go insane like the US after 9/11 and start giving away every right they had in the name of safety. Americans have been running scared for 10 years allowing the government to steer us all into one prison or another.

Chad A.
Chad Anderson6 years ago

We have stopped paying atention to what works and only advance the prison agenda of discipline and punish through symbolic violence. What is the purpose of prison? We act like it is vengeance, but "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord." Prison was originally a reform to put a stop to what is now called "cruel and unusual" punishments. I think the purpose of the criminal justice society should be to protect society, reform offenders, and provide a demonstration of public justice. Why then do the white collar offenders who are responsible for the bulk of the economic damage get let of the hook, blacks who kill whites are the most likely to be sentenced to death, and people whose nonviolent crimes amount to hundreds or even tens of dolalrs in damages may end up in joail for life?

federico bortoletto
federico b6 years ago

grazie per l'articolo

Will Rogers
Will Rogers6 years ago

In England there are a lot of what we call 'open prisons' mostly reserved for rich criminals, corrupt policemen, crooked judges that kind. And also for long term prisoners reaching the end of their sentences and for non violent criminals inc drug dealers and accountants, (we don't incarcerate drug users in this country, knowing that they're medical cases)  that's because we don't have a lot of guns and is easy to live here your whole life without ever seeing a illegal gun! I have never seen a gun in this country not in the possession of a member of the armed forces. 
I know that it's unbelievable that in The UK we even have a class system in prison but it's true! If you are rich or connected they will send you to a open prison, ...saying that though... When I visited a friend who was imprisoned in Ford Open Prison, there were Indians there, black carribbeans, Africans, and whites, and a Vietnamese marijuana grower! And when I say visited him! I met him at the prison gate at 9:am, went to the local town and stayed there till 5pm! I don't know what the rate of recidivism is but I suspect it is very low. (my friends crime? Multi million pound mortgage fraud)