To Solve Prison Crowding, Norway Goes Dutch

Holland has extra space and already rents cells to Belgium
Dutch prisons have more guards and support staff than criminals Photograph by Koen van Weel/ANP/Newscom

Norwegian prisons are the most luxurious in the world. The country’s newest high-security facility, Halden, opened in 2010 and features cells outfitted with windows, private bathrooms, and flatscreen TVs. A low-security prison outside Oslo, on Bastøy Island, offers a sauna and tennis courts; inmates wear street clothes and are free to roam as they please among the cottages where they live and the buildings where they work and eat.

This year the government plans to invest as much as $690 million to renovate and upgrade prison facilities. The goal is to rehabilitate the country’s roughly 3,600 prisoners by letting them live somewhat normal lives while serving their time, an approach that’s resulted in one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world.

There are now more convicted criminals than prison beds, however, leaving about 1,300 people waiting until space opens up before they can serve their sentences. “They have been convicted in court, and we don’t have a prison place for them, so they are waiting while they continue to live in their homes and walk on the streets,” says Vidar Brein-Karlsen, a state secretary at Norway’s Ministry of Justice and Public Security. “It’s hard for us to accept.”

Norway’s solution? Send the convicts to the Netherlands, where the government announced plans last year to close 19 prisons because there weren’t enough inmates to fill them. The proposal, released in early September, would transfer a few hundred convicts to Dutch facilities, where they would be supervised by Norwegian authorities, says Brein-Karlsen. High-risk prisoners, including Anders Behring Breivik, who massacred 77 people in 2011, would stay in Norway. If the plan is approved, transfers could begin next year.

Prisoner transfers are relatively common in the U.S., where federal inmates are often moved around the country. Four states send some of their prisoners to serve time in other states. According to a report released last fall by the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership, at least 10,500 state prisoners were held last year outside the state where they were convicted. Hawaii and Vermont each send inmates more than 2,000 miles to Arizona, where they’re housed in private prisons run by Corrections Corp. of America.

Moving prisoners across jurisdictions is rarer in Europe, where language and cultural barriers make the transfers hard. Human-rights law could be a stumbling block. “If you simply see prisons as places of punishment and containment, this might seem reasonable, but it clearly states in UN standards that prisons have a function in terms of rehabilitation,” says Frank Warburton, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies in London. “So Norway’s borrowing of U.S. practices is extremely worrying.”

About 550 Belgians are already housed in Dutch prisons under a program started in 2009. Belgium pays about $52 million annually to rent the detention space, according to the Dutch Ministry of Justice. The Dutch Parliament would need to approve a bilateral treaty with Norway before any transfer could occur, but lawmakers appear open to a deal. “If the Netherlands can keep jobs this way, we support the plans,” says Gerard Schouw, a member of parliament for the liberal D66 party.

A measure to send Norway’s extra prisoners to Sweden failed earlier this year because the two countries couldn’t agree on a bilateral treaty that would change laws to allow the move. Norway’s Labor Party, the largest in opposition, has signaled it may support the government’s proposal as a temporary solution to prison bed shortages. “What’s most important is that Norway builds more prison cells,” says Kari Henriksen, a Labor politician on the parliamentary justice committee.

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