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Cell Block Green

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A Norwegian prison breaks away from traditional punishment, while forging a link with the environment.

By Laurene Mainguy
Photos courtesy of Haavald Schjerven
Spring 2008

It’s like a remote European Catholic brotherhood: people live off the soil and sell homemade honey candies to visitors of the abbey. The architecture is Nordic, with houses in shades of browns, whites and reds. And the wooden ceiling of the church resembles a 9th century Viking long ship turned upside down.

On Bastoey Island, Norway, a community of men share meals, grow vegetables, raise cattle, repair 19th century houses and contemplate the surrounding fjord, a long narrow inlet of the sea flowing between steep cliffs. The annual 373-mile pilgrim walk to Trondheim Cathedral is an occasion to think and to build friendships.

But Bastoey is not a monastery. It is a state prison 46 miles south of Oslo, the capital of Norway, where inmates live in ordinary houses and lead almost ordinary lives.

Bastoey’s motto is “humanøkologi,” or, human ecology. Prisoners learn to live in harmony with nature to complete themselves as human beings before returning to civil society.

The 115 prisoners live in 22 unlocked houses. They have their own bedrooms, wake themselves up, prepare their breakfast before going to work and have common lunch and dinner every day.

Daily life consists of work and school. “They have to go to work,” said Oeyvind Alnaes, who as prison governor oversees the operation. “They have to wake up in the morning just like I have to do. They are, in a way, training for the rest of their lives.”

Prisoners work in several areas, including the agriculture department where they grow vegetables and raise cattle and sheep. Former prisoner Haavald Schjerven worked in the fields with horses to do “everything you do in a farm,” such as plowing the soil and harvesting timber and hay. He also gave tours of the island to visitors during the three and a half years he spent in Bastoey for fraud.

Prisoners also cut wood for heating and repairing houses, which they fix themselves. They work on the prison’s fishing boats and ferry, as well as the laundry department or in the common kitchen. In the afternoon, inmates go back to work unless they want to attend school or rehabilitation programs.

“We have programs for drug users, sexual offenders and for those who will become dads, so they learn how to have a good communication with their children, how to be a good dad,” Alnaes said.

After dinner, prisoners play soccer, go to the gymnasium, walk or relax. In his spare time, Schjerven trained and rode horses. He was also a librarian and the prison’s newspaper editor.

Despite the luxuries, Bastoey remains a prison. Inmates are counted twice a day. They have to be back in their houses no later than 11 p.m. or the prison will assume they have escaped, and they will transfer the prisoner to a closed penitentiary.

In 2007, after 10 years of peering into the souls of its prisoners, the people of Bastoey decided to look to their surrounding environment. Chief Seattle, a North American Indian chief, was their source of inspiration. Chief Seattle believed that when you do something to your surroundings, you do it to yourself, Alnaes said. The advice was taken to heart, and Bastoey sought out ways to be earth friendly.

One of the first things prison officials did was recycle paper, glass, metal and plastic. This saved them more than $65,000, in part because they no longer had to get rid of the trash by taking it to the mainland every other week.

Bastoey officials then invested that savings in two solar panels for one of the houses. The other houses, heated with electricity, are temperature-regulated by a computer system to keep them cooler at night and when prisoners are at work.

But prison officials didn’t stop with energy efficiency. They purchased a machine to transform food trash into compost to use on the crops instead of chemical fertilizers.

Prisoners also began growing a variety of organic products such as wheat, corn, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. They catch their own fish, crabs and lobsters. Most of this food is eaten right on the island. Bastoey’s ultimate goal is to serve and produce only organic food. “At the moment our production is too little because we have greenhouses that are damaged,” Alnaes said. He says the prison provides about 20 percent of its needs of animal proteins and expects to grow 50 percent of its vegetables in the spring.

Horses are used for transportation on the island to reduce carbon emissions. Shjerven said that in addition to using fewer fossil fuels, the horses provide positive energy to inmates. “These 100 kilos [220 pounds] of muscles build up confidence and trust in some people who had never heard a word of trust and confidence,” Shjerven said.

The prison also replaced two of its seven old cars with hybrid models, and uses a diesel Citroën C3 made by carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroën. This model releases fewer carbon dioxide emissions than traditional cars thanks to its “stop and start” system”, which cuts the engine during idling and turns it back on as soon as the brake pedal is released.

These changes were made with an annual budget of $7.48 million. “It’s the same stack of money we have always had, but we have changed how to use it,” Alnaes said.

Schjerven believes Bastoey’s success is due to its human ecological philosophy—prisoners are treated as human beings and learn to do something good and useful, which gives them self-esteem. “You don’t make a better person by locking him up in a small cell,” said Schjerven. “You have to give him the mechanisms to change and to make sure that he or she understands the value of changing to become a better person in the future.”
Whether the philosophy is successful is uncertain. A lack of statistics on recidivism makes it difficult to assess. But Alnaes believes prisoners who go there don’t come back because they are better prepared to care for themselves.

Though other Norwegian prisons look at Bastoey with curiosity, the Ministry of Justice and Police does not currently have plans to expand the concept of human ecology to other prisons. “Bastoey is in the beginning,” said Siv Hvidsten, director of correctional services of Southern Norway. “They are exploring new ways and inmates are lucky to have the opportunity to serve their sentence there.”

Laurene Mainguy is a first-year master’s student in the environmental journalism program at MSU. This is her first appearance in EJ. Contact Laurene at mainguyl@msu.edu

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