by Amelia Gentleman for The Guardian, May 18, 2012
Halden prison smells of freshly brewed coffee. It hits you in the workshop areas, lingers in the games rooms and in the communal apartment-style areas where prisoners live together in groups of eight. This much coffee makes you hungry, so a couple of hours after lunch the guards on Unit A (a quiet, separated wing where sex offenders are held for their own protection) bring inmates a tall stack of steaming, heart-shaped waffles and pots of jam, which they set down on a checked tablecloth and eat together, whiling away the afternoon.
The other remarkable thing is how quiet the prison is. There isn't any of the enraged, persistent banging of doors you hear in British prisons, not least because the prisoners are not locked up much during the day. The governor, Are Høidal, is surprised when I ask about figures for prisoner attacks on guards, staff hospitalisations, guard restraints on prisoners, or prisoner-on-prisoner assaults. I explain that British prisons are required to log this data, and that the last prison I visited had a problem with prisoners melting screws into plastic pens, to use as stabbing weapons; he looks startled, says there isn't much violence here and he can't remember the last time there was a fight.
Halden is one of Norway's highest-security jails, holding rapists, murderers and paedophiles. Since it opened two years ago, at a cost of 1.3bn Norwegian kroner (£138m), it has acquired a reputation as the world's most humane prison. It is the flagship of the Norwegian justice system, where the focus is on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
There was early speculation that Anders Breivik, currently on trial in Oslo for the murder of 77 people, might end up here, given that there are few high-security options across Norway, but that now looks unlikely, at least for the first chunk of his sentence. If he is judged to be sane, he will probably remain in isolation in the Ila prison where he is currently being held, a former Nazi concentration camp with a less utopian vision. However, the underlying ethos of Halden prison gives an insight into Norwegian attitudes towards justice, one that is under scrutiny as the country assesses how to deal with Breivik.
When Halden opened, it attracted attention globally for its design and its relative splendour. Set in a forest, the prison blocks are a model of minimalist chic. Høidal lifts down from his office wall a framed award for best interior design, a prize given in recognition of the stylishness of the white laminated tables, tangerine leather sofas and elegant, skinny chairs dotted all over the place. At times, the environment feels more Scandinavian boutique hotel than class A prison.
The hotel comparison comes up frequently. Høidal is just back from visiting a British prison and had to stay a night in a hotel off Oxford Street. Happily for the hotel, he can't remember the name, but he noticed his room was certainly smaller and probably less nice than the cells in Halden. Every Halden cell has a flatscreen television, its own toilet (which, unlike standard UK prison cells, also has a door) and a shower, which comes with large, soft, white towels. Prisoners have their own fridges, cupboards and desks in bright new pine, white magnetic pinboards and huge, unbarred windows overlooking mossy forest scenery.
"There was much focus on the design," Høidal says. "We wanted it to be light and positive."
Obviously the hotel comparison is a stupid one, since the problem with being in prison, unlike staying in a hotel, is that you cannot leave. Even if the prison compound has more in common with a modern, rural university campus, with young and enthusiastic staff (who push themselves around the compound on fashionable, silver two-wheel scooters), the key point about it is that hidden behind the silver birch trees is a thick, tall concrete wall, impossible to scale.