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Criminal justice

What can we learn from Norway’s prison system?

A view of the Halden Prison building taken from the forest. There are lots of trees in the foreground.

Staff from teams across the HMP Guys Marsh recently took a trip to Scandinavia, to see first hand just how differently they approach justice. Catch22 Senior Case Manager Poppy Arnold went on the trip, and shared what she learnt.

Our team at HMP Guys Marsh have been working with Dr Sarah Lewis, Director of Penal Reform Solutions since late 2016, helping the staff and prisoners to adopt a rehabilitative culture. As part of her work, she recently organised a trip to Norway so that prison staff could experience just how different its system is. I was lucky enough to be selected and in March, myself and five other staff members flew out to Oslo. We visited two prisons.


With a population of only 251 men, Halden is the largest prison in Norway. Halden is a maximum security prison however it certainly does not feel like England’s equivalent of a Category A establishment. It is essentially one big forest with buildings dotted around.

Halden is very big on creating space and uses nature to do this. Nestled between the trees are the men’s housing units. Believe it or not, Halden have never had a code yellow (incident at height) for someone climbing up a tree! Never underestimate the power of nature. The men say that if they are frustrated or angry, they simply walk around the grounds, sit on a bench and just take some time out.

Men can walk freely around the grounds, attending work or education in the day. There is all sorts of work available at Halden- one that sticks to mind is the mechanics workshop where the men were completing MOT’s on Prison Officers’ own cars. Returning to their rooms (where there are no bars on the windows) in the evening, the men can cook and socialise with others in the communal areas.

The overall attitude of the men is that they are grateful for the opportunities available at Halden and are motivated to engage with work and education in order to equip themselves with invaluable skills for their eventual release. Norway’s maximum prison sentence is 21 years, although it is said that infamous 2011 mass murderer Anders Breivik will never be released.


Next was Bastoy, an island prison with a population of 115. It is the equivalent of a Category C/D establishment. There is lots of open space and the men live in houses dotted across the island. The men work on and off Bastoy, and also manage the ferry you get to and from the island. Once again, Bastoy offers many opportunities with regards to work and education qualifications; there is also livestock including cows, chickens and horses that the men care for. Bastoy is well equipped, services include a chaplaincy, healthcare and a library. Bastoy even has a beach where members of the public can visit during the summer months.

Reflecting on our work in the UK

One of the most striking differences in Norway’s prison culture was the training of the Prison Officers. Each trainee receive a two year training package covering aspects of law, human rights, psychology and criminology, before they even step foot in uniform. The overall attitude and ethic of the Officers is that they were here to support the men in turning their lives around.

When a man has completed two thirds of their sentence, they can request release. They must put forward their release plans to a panel (similar to a Parole Board) and a discussion will be held as to whether or not the man is deemed ready for society. The man must evidence what support they have on release, plans for education or employment, and housing must be secured, staying with mum and dad is not deemed acceptable accommodation! The man must demonstrate they are taking responsibility and can live independently.

Overall it was a very fascinating trip; Norway put a lot of resource into their prison system and this clearly pays off with a re-conviction of just 16%. As much as prisons can do individually, I believe that in order for the re-conviction rate to lower, we need society as a whole to support offenders and embrace rehabilitation.

– Poppy Arnold, Senior Case Manager at HMP Guys Marsh