The not-so-terrible fate awaiting Norway’s alleged mass killer

The not-so-terrible fate awaiting Norway’s alleged mass killer

Among the many questions that remain over why and how a gunman was able to kill at least 76 people in Norway on Friday, perhaps nothing is more infuriating than the cushy fate that seems to await Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect. If you’re going to go on a maniacal murder rampage and then not have the decency to include yourself in the body count — Norway is the place to do it.

Norway takes the mantra of rehabilitation to an extreme. Not only are there no death sentences, there aren’t life sentences. The maximum Breivik can face is 21 years (not per murder, but in total). Yes, there is a caveat that says a prisoner deemed to still be a threat can have his sentence expanded in five year blocks — but in a very real sense, that means he will come up for parole every five years for the rest of his life — or until he is no longer seen as a threat. Few killers in Norway serve more than 14 years.

The Norwegian prison system takes seriously the philosophy that inmates should be treated as humanely as possible and that jail sentences should be seen less as punishment than as an opportunity to reintegrate troubled people back into society. According to the numbers, this approach has some benefits — only 20 percent of prisoners there eventually return to prison, as opposed to 50 – 60 percent in the United States and Britain. Violent crime is much lower than in other societies.

"Both society and the individual simply have to put aside their desire for revenge, and stop focusing on prisons as places of punishment and pain," one prison official said last year. "Depriving a person of their freedom for a period of time is sufficient punishment in itself without any need whatsoever for harsh prison conditions."

That’s a fair point, but can the theory hold in a case like this? Will Breivik be seen as a person who can be rehabilitated and returned to society? And if not, what does the soft Norwegian prison system mean for him?

Wifi and Rock climbing walls

Norway doesn’t have many jails to choose from (there are only 3,300 incarcerated prisoners in the whole country, compared to 2.5 million in the United States). Last year, Norway inaugurated its newest prison — a campus that embodies its principles of rehabbing the worst of society.

With prisoners that include rapists and murderers, Halden Prison — the second largest in the country and the most secure facility — looks more like a sleepaway camp than a traditional prison — architects say they purposely tried to avoid an "institutional feel." When it opened, some news accounts called it the "most humane" prison in the world. According to a Time magazine story last year:

Halden is spread over 75 acres (30 hectares) of gently sloping forest in southeastern Norway. The facility boasts amenities like a sound studio, jogging trails and a freestanding two-bedroom house where inmates can host their families during overnight visits. Unlike many American prisons, the air isn’t tinged with the smell of sweat and urine. Instead, the scent of orange sorbet emanates from the "kitchen laboratory" where inmates take cooking courses…. To avoid an institutional feel, exteriors are not concrete but made of bricks, galvanized steel and larch; the buildings seem to have grown organically from the woodlands. And while there is one obvious symbol of incarceration — a 20-ft. (6 m) concrete security wall along the prison’s perimeter — trees obscure it, and its top has been rounded off.

Prisoners’ cells include flat screen TVs, minifridges, and long windows that let in more sunlight. Prisoners share kitchens and living rooms with sofas and coffee tables. There’s a state-of-the-art gym with a climbing wall and expensive artwork commissioned for the prison. At other maximum security prisons, inmates have access to the internet, even in their jail cells.

Prison guards don’t carry guns. And they are encouraged to be outgoing and friendly toward the inmates — eating together and playing sports to "create a sense of family," one official said.

Other lower-security prisons in Norway (where violent criminals tend to end up after a few years) are even cushier — with tennis courts, horseback riding, beaches, and ski trails (prisoners can participate in ski-jumping competitions in the winter at one facility). At an island prison (which includes murders and rapists as well) inmates work on a farm and live in "comfortable wooden houses shared between four to six inmates."

Societal criticism of prison life is somewhat faint (most of the criticism in the past has had to do with the fear that cushy jails could lure more organized crime to the country (one politician argued that some of the nicer prisons should "only be for Norwegian criminals.")

Time noted last summer that: "Norway’s cultural values and attitudes toward crime mean the public sees no need to push for tougher penalties or harsher prisons."

The article also noted, "In Norway, acts of extreme violence are seen as aberrant events, not symptoms of national decay."

This unprecedented case could make Norwegians reexamine their thoughts on incarceration. For now, Breivik has been remanded to custody for eight weeks (he’ll be held in isolation for the first month — meaning no outside communication with anyone besides his lawyers). After that, if convicted, the alleged mass killer of at least 76 people may end up in a prison with a lovely rock-climbing wall to keep himself occupied.