Offbeat tourism: A guided tour of the slammer

Today I saw a side of Norway that isn’t advertised in guidebooks or tourist websites. In fact it isn’t something that an ordinary tourist or even a local citizen could easily do. I visited the prison where Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik will spend the rest of his life.

The excursion, organized for reporters by the Foreign Press Association in Norway, started off rather serene: A 15 minute drive west out of Oslo, up tree-lined roads along the Oslofjord, past a beautiful golf course filled with patrons available for play on a sunny Thursday afternoon. It wasn’t a surprise when a fellow reporter told me that this suburb, Bærum, is one of the country’s priciest areas to live.

Ila Prison, where Breivik will serve his sentence, is in Bærum.

The English department at my old college in Ohio has some some striking similarities to the photo below.

Our van stopped in front what could easily have been mistaken for the English department at my old college: A long rectangular red brick building perched on a grassy hill. It was one of several buildings that made up the “prison campus.” If it wasn’t surrounded by tall fences and barbed wire I would have thought it was time for English 101.

Breivik isn’t at Ila Prison now. There are few months of construction left of a new wing with special security measures just for him.

A time-out for criminals

The Norwegians’ relief when Breivik was given 21 years in prison, the maximum sentence in Norway, confused Americans because the US Justice System would have had a far heftier punishment for a man responsible for the cold-blooded murder of 77 people (rest-assured Breivik will be in prison for life because sentences can be extended.)

Ila Prison, where Breivik will probably learn to build make birdhouses.

But in Norway criminals are not sent to prison to be punished. Prison has been designed as a ‘mini society’ for criminals where they can essentially take a break from the real world and, with the help of professionals, recover from whatever aspect of life has driven them to crime. If they can accomplish this they’re released back into society.

There are individual and group counselling sessions to help them learn to think differently. They can also go to school, learn to make wooden birdhouses and hit the gym, all inside the prison campus. If they are released there is a housing consultant to help them find a place.

Take the word “prison” out of that last paragraph and it sounds like something out of a college brochure. This is what Breivik’s sentence will be like.

Investing in values

One of my son’s nursery teachers has a sister who was badly hurt when Breivik attacked. Marcella said her sister, whose post-traumatic stress drove her to be suicidal until the trial ended, is finally able to start recovering now that Breivik has received the maximum prison sentence. She knows imprisonment in Norway is not meant to be a punishment and she’s ok with that.

In Norway the execution of a sentence is not meant to fit society but is designed for the criminal.

Marcella says people lost enough on 22 July, 2011, they don’t want Breivik to take their values, too.

But at what cost are Norwegians digging their heels into their values?

Criminals in preventative detention cost 1.2 million kroner ($210,000) a year. Breivik will cost an additional 6.7 million kroner ($1.2 million) because of special security meaures, including three prison guards dedicated to him while he is in isolation. He’ll also have his own set of shrinks.

Let’s do some math:

1.2 million kroner + 6.7 million kroner x 21 years = 165 million kroner.

Nearly $29 million by the time he’s 54 years old. And he’s in for life.

A second glance

Since leaving the US I’ve had a lot of practice adjusting how I look at things. Like how Norwegians have lunch at 11:30am. Locals subscribe to a healthier four-meal-a-day routine and I’ve found it works.

But understanding why Breivik isn’t just electrocuted takes some recalibrating. First I had to wrap my head around the idea that in Norway the execution of a sentence is not meant to fit society but is designed for the criminal.

Look at it from this angle and the correctional system makes a bit more sense.

In the US a majority of sex offenders sent to prison are eventually released. If one of these chaps could end up my next door neighbor, I don’t want him to have had a miserable time in prison. It’ll only make him hate the world more. A positive, constructive prison environment means that when someone is released they know how to function in the real world like a normal person.

And then there’s the latest example of the US Justice System at work: Damon Thibodeaux, a Louisiana death row inmate, who spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement for 15 years for a crime that he didn’t commit.

Thibodeaux is the 18th death row inmate exonerated based on DNA evidence. He is an example of the complete failure of the US Justice System. A dangerous man remained free, an innocent man suffered hell on Earth, and now he’s been released and is supposed to move on.

He is innocent yet I do not want him living near me.