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  • Writer's pictureKaigan

Halden Prison: A Place Designed to Thrive


Norway seems to be known around the world for having a humane prison system. Even people who don’t know much about prison systems seem to have heard about prisons in Norway, and with good reason. Many prison officials have made the trip to Norway to see for themselves what the prisons are like, and many documentaries have been made about prisons in Norway thanks to how inviting their prisons are towards ‘outsiders’. I was lucky enough to make the trip to Norway myself in September 2022 and visit Halden Prison after an invite from Are Høidal. Are was the Governor of Halden Prison from the time it opened in 2010, until September 2022 when he began a new role within the Norwegian Correctional Service. Halden has been named ‘the most humane prison in the world’. Prisons in Norway have re-offending rates as low at 20% after two years and 25% after five years (Høidal, 2022, personal communication, 26 September 2022) but let’s backtrack a little before we get into the specifics of what makes some prisons in Norway, and specifically Halden Prison so great, as prisons in Norway haven’t always been this way.

In the 1980s and 1990s prisons in Norway had re-offending rates of between 60% and 70%, and there was little interaction between the officers and the prisoners. Officers were considered guards at the time, and their sole aim was to ensure the security within the prison and prevent prisoners from escaping (Høidal, 2022, personal communication, 26 September 2022). There was little purposeful activity in prisons at the time and a number of people tried to escape. Two officers were even murdered during that time. In 1997-98 a White Paper, ‘A Paradigm Shift’, was published after the government decided that prisons in Norway had to change. An important change that the government decided to implement was that prison officers would work much more closely with prisoners to help them create meaningful change in their lives. This involved professionalising the role of the prison officer so they became more of a social worker as well as a guard. They were now expected to be a role model and a coach for the prisoners. This would also impact on the security within prisons. At that time, prisons relied solely on static security to maintain control within the prison. This included high fences, CCTV cameras and regular counts of prisoners. Having prison officers work in this new way, whereby they interacted closely with prisoners and helped them throughout their sentence, brought dynamic security. As officers were now to be spending so much time with prisoners, they would be able to build relations with them and naturally monitor them while working and participating in leisure activities, as the officers would be doing these things with them. A cultural shift was required at the time, as each of the prison staff had applied to be a guard and not a social worker. Are said that it was a lot of work to change the culture so that staff began to accept this new role. Within five years of the government implementing these changes, Are felt that his staff were all on board with the new way of working.

Another important goal for the Norwegian Correctional Service in this new way of working was that prisoners would have equal rights to all other people living in Norway. This is known as ‘The Principle of Normality’ (Høidal, 2022, personal communication, 26 September 2022). The government believed that, in order to help prisoners re-integrate back into society upon release more easily, that restriction of liberty would be the only punishment and everything else in prison would resemble the outside world as much as possible. In Norway, all prisons also use ‘The Import Model’. This means that all services in prison, such as the education, healthcare and library facilities, are delivered by individuals who are employed in the community, not by the prison. Now that we’ve explored the basics as to how the Norwegian Correctional Service got to where it is, let’s dive into my visit to Halden Prison.

Halden Prison

Halden prison is a maximum-security prison for men. Around 40% of the men serving a sentence in Halden are foreign nationals who are in for attempting to smuggle drugs down at the Swedish border. The average sentence in Halden is 8 years, but can be as many as 21 years which is the maximum prison sentence in Norway; however, for specific crimes, there is an ability in their law to increase this sentence in five year increments if necessary. On first walking up to the prison, it looked like a typical prison. You have to go through the usual security of a prison but when you get inside, you quickly forget you’re in a prison as you are surrounded by an abundance of trees and green space. There are many buildings within Halden Prison and a winding path between all the buildings. Each building is contained within fences, but they aren’t much higher than a typical person and you can see through them right into nature, so it’s easy to forget they are there. However, there are over 250 cameras on site, and let’s not forget the 6 metre high, thick wall that surrounds the prison. Although there is an abundance of greenery and space to move, you are still in a maximum-security prison. The aim is that prisoners can walk around freely within the prison. Nobody has ever tried to escape from Halden, and why would you? As far as prisons go, it’s an impressive one.

For visitors, Halden has private visiting rooms, rather than visiting halls like most prisons do. There were several large rooms that the prisoners could use if they had their children visiting. These rooms had a window so staff could see through if they wanted to, to ensure the children were safe. There were several small visiting rooms where prisoners could have their partner visiting for up to 90 minutes once a week. Unlike prisons in other countries where visitation is closely monitored, in Halden the prisoner and their partner are left in the room alone. There are no windows for staff to be able to see in. This is to give the couple privacy, like a normal couple would have. Halden even provides protection to the prisoner and their partner in the form of condoms. I was quite surprised by this, but as Are said, life in prison in Norway has to resemble the outside world as much as possible. However, any visitors to Halden are vetted by the police to ensure there aren’t any concerns that potential criminal activity might occur during the visit.

As Are and I walked around the grounds, we approached a self-contained house with large windows and a small garden containing a tree house, artwork and views over-looking lots of green space. Everything in Halden looks over lots of green space! I quickly learned that this house is the ‘family house’ where prisoners can have their children come to stay overnight. Before given this privilege, the prisoners must attend a course about how to be a good dad. I thought this concept was extremely powerful. Not only are they being taught how to be a better parent to their children, their children are able to visit them in a beautiful location and self-contained home. This is much better than having to attend a typical prison which can be very scary for an adult, never mind a child.

Next, we attended one of the housing units where the prisoners live. It took me a moment to realise we were in the living unit, it looked nothing like what you’d expect a prison cell to look like. Within the unit there is a living room and kitchen where the prisoners can relax together and cook. While the prison provides some meals to prisoners, they are expected to cook and eat together in their housing unit. They have a meal timetable for the week and are given the ingredients from the main prison kitchen, then they have to cook the food together. Sometimes staff will sit and eat meals with the prisoners if invited, and if they don’t have other work that needs completed at that time. As well as being provided ingredients from the main prison kitchen to make their meals, prisoners also have the option of going to the grocery store and buying food. It looks exactly like a typical grocery store in the community would. Prisoners also wash their own clothes, though their prison work clothes are washed by the prison. I was taken into one of the cells and it was miles away from a typical prison cell. Each cell has its own bathroom with a shower. This is something that I think needs to be implemented into all prisons imminently, as I’ve heard many former prisoners tell me that they were only given access to showers several times a week which, along with many other aspects of prison life, impacted their mental health. Having a bathroom with a shower in the cells is surely required to create more humanity within a prison. The cell had a TV, mini fridge and more importantly, no bars on the windows. There was a large window with reinforced glass in the cell looking out onto lots of green space and beautiful trees. In Norway, the government want prisoners to spend as much time with each other and the staff as possible to decrease isolation, so they spend little time in their cells. They are locked up at 8.30pm and unlocked at 8.30am. The rest of the time, they are either at work, school or socialising.

The school, work locations, grocery store and gym are all out with the housing unit to add to the normality principle of people leaving their houses to carry out their activities. We walked around the school area and I saw prisoners in different classes. I saw the library with an abundance of books in different languages, and DVDs, both which prisoners could rent at least one of each week. The library was very impressive and was evidence of the learning and growth culture in Halden, due to the abundance of learning materials in there. I saw prisoners hard at work in art class and craftwork. Some prisoners were eager to show me Christmas decorations they were making to sell in the prison shop which is open for prisoners and staff to buy things. They were making impressive penguins, snowmen and gingerbread men. There was a great initiative going on where inmates were washing, sewing and repairing clothes. An officer told me that they work in partnership with many shops in Norway, where these clothes are then sold at a fraction of the original price. In art class, one prisoner gave me a piece of artwork he had created. I was really touched to see so many prisoners eager to show me their work, it was clear they were really proud of what they were creating. I felt this was so important, because being proud of ourselves elevates our self-confidence which in turn encourages us to reach higher goals. This is showing the prisoners that they are capable of achieving great things. Throughout the prison there were positive quotes displayed which I thought was beautiful. In a place that is often thought to strip people of any hope for a better life, Halden encourages prisoners to make better choices and have hope for the future. I chatted with many prisoners. I had no idea what they were in prison for, and it didn’t matter. I took them at face value and the majority of them seemed kind and gentle. I think it’s important that we see people for who they are, and not for the mistakes they’ve previously made.

I was shown ‘Criminal Records’ the impressive music studio within the prison where prisoners can play instruments and even record songs. The hope is that this will help the prisoners to develop skills they can use post release from prison. I met two music teachers who are employed in the community and come into the prison to teach, in line with the Import Model which I discussed earlier. There was an abundance of instruments available in the studio. One of the music teachers told me that a prisoner wanted to record meditations and used the studio to do so. He recorded himself speaking several meditations and with the help of the teachers, and the instruments in the studio, they created background music which sounded like waterfalls and the ocean. I found this very impressive, and I was lucky enough to be given a CD with the mediations on it. Next, I saw, ‘Halden Prison Prints’, a printing shop where some prisoners work. I was fascinated to learn that the prisoners actually print and put together the syllabus for trainee prison officers in Norway (the officers study for two years to be a prison officer and earn a diploma in Correctional Studies). The print shop also provides printing to private companies which brings money back into the prison to keep it functioning, as maintaining all the equipment in the print shop is expensive.

I continued to be amazed as I was then shown the woodwork workshop and the car garage. They were both large, impressive spaces. The woodwork workshop was full of beautifully carved items, ranging from rocking horses, to children’s seating areas, to adult sized benches, and other furniture. The workshop looked exactly like you’d expect in any similar business out in the community and the quality of the products were fantastic. Are told me that the general public can actually buy any of these items by visiting the prison woodwork website. It’s amazing to think that these products are made at Halden and can be shipped anywhere in the world. The car garage had a mechanics teacher, again from the community, and several prisoners hard at work fixing up some cars. I learned that the prisoners, if serving a long enough sentence, can earn their mechanics qualifications over a four-year period in prison. I asked if they ever run out of cars to fix and Are chuckled and told me that there are an abundance of cars for them to work on, as staff bring their cars in to be fixed by the prisoners. There are around 350 prison officers in the prison, so plenty of cars to keep them busy!

During my visit to Halden, some prisoners were coming to the end of a three-week silent retreat. I sat down with Are at the end of my visit and he explained to me how the retreat works. The purpose of the retreat is for prisoners to think about the things they love in their life, and then to spend time in deep reflection about all the bad things that have happened in their lives. They think of all the things they’ve done that they aren’t proud of, and they write them down. Are said this is often a very difficult part of the retreat for the prisoners, and understandably so. They then burn the paper that they wrote all of the bad things down on. This helps them to release the negative emotions they might feel about themselves and their past and help them to move forward in life. In one area of Halden, there is also a garden where prisoners can meditate.


As previously mentioned, I met many prisoners during my visit to Halden as they approached Are during our walk around the prison. I could tell straight away that there was immense respect between the prisoners and Are. Many of them shook his hand upon greeting him, before talking to him about their day, what’s happening for them, or asking Are about his new job which he was about to start several days later. The conversations between Are and the prisoners were meaningful and promoted discussions around ensuring they continue to behave well and make good choices for the future. This is what touched me the most about my visit to Halden. A previous prison governor in Norway told me that it didn’t matter how humane a prison was, what mattered was mutual respect and positive relations between prisoners and prison staff. I can comfortably say that within Halden, it’s clear there was immense mutual respect between Are and the prisoners I met.

I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my visit to Halden Prison. A great way to describe Halden would be an abundance of opportunity. I was so impressed at the amount of purposeful work available to the prisoners. How amazing it is that while incarcerated, they are learning meaningful skills and giving back to the community already, through repairing clothes to then sell in shops, providing printing services to private companies, creating wooden furniture for the public and more. The quality of each workspace was incredible and like anything you’d see in the community. Not only are the prisoners learning life skills in prison, such as how to cook, clean and maintain a routine like the public do, but they can learn to become a printer, a mechanic, a woodworker, a musician, a chef, work in a grocery store and more. Too many people waste their years in different prisons around the world, but Halden really is making those years for the prisoners count. I feel they are giving them a great opportunity to turn their lives around post release and effectively integrate into society.


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