Prison Ecology

Art by James Wardell
Art by James Wardell

When a foal is born on Bastøy Island Prison in Norway, it is the inmates who help deliver it and the inmates who name it. Bastøy Boy, the newest foal in the community, arrived last spring in the dark of night, his birth overseen by inmates whose full-time job it is to brush and feed and care for the horses. When the foal is old enough to wear horseshoes, an inmate named George will pat the foal’s thigh and brush rocks and debris from one after another of its hooves. He will do this for nine horses, thirty-six hooves in all. Then George will feed and water the horses before closing their stalls and calling it a day.

Bastøy Boy has the leggy profile of a preteen and stays close to his mother, Ronja II, who is daughter to Ronja, the matriarch in a team of workhorses that are integral to life on this island. The horses plow the fields and haul the trees that inmates fell in the forest. These trees become logs that feed wood-burning furnaces. The wood-burning furnaces heat the cottages that are cared for and inhabited by inmates.

So it goes at Bastøy, the world’s first human-ecological prison. Clearly, the men here have made mistakes severe enough to find themselves incarcerated. But Bastøy’s physical design—lush, unfenced, and escapable—suggests that a man who is invited to work with his feet on the earth and his eyes to the sky, and who functions as an integral part of a community, will learn interdependency better than a man whose movements are choreographed by others, and then only when he’s not locked in a cell. When our understanding of community changes, the hope goes, so do our actions.

Former warden, minister, and psychotherapist Arne Kvernvik Nilsen implemented and champions Bastøy’s human-ecological model. His philosophy is so jam-packed with humanistic ideals and high-minded concepts that it could be an entire undergraduate major, and a challenging one at that. If there’s an irony to his approach, it’s that a philosophy so heady on paper feels so organic in practice. He speaks often of dirt—as in, the dirt of the field he put his hands into when he helped plant crops. He speaks of windows—those he washed himself. He speaks of eye contact, and shared work, and being real and present with others, staff and inmates alike.

“No. Rehabilitation isn’t always practical,” he says. “Sometimes it is only habilitation. But we have to try, don’t we?”

And that trying comes about in the most humble way. (Humble, from Latin—humus—meaning earth.) The incarcerated men at Bastøy grow most of their own food and they process their own recycling; they are responsible for not just overseeing but nourishing living things on this five-acre island, including the land, plants, and relationships. By design, the community is small and nearly self-sustaining. Both prisoners and staff drive electric cars; they’re working, always, to reduce CO2 emissions, mindful of how their actions affect the earth, how the earth’s health affects the weather, their crops, their lives. Inmates live together in cottages, not cells; in every cottage lives a huset far, or “house father” who is in charge of loading the wood into the home’s furnace. The house father keeps the home fires burning for himself and the other inmates, and if he should forget, everyone in the house feels the chill.

It’s another man’s job to fell those trees, to chop them, to load them onto horse carriages. The inmates raise the lambs and cows that they eat, and they plant and harvest the animals’ food. The cows roam the island, preferring a wide clearing deep in the island’s forest, beside which inmates often jog.

When inmates and officers eat burgers together on a hill overlooking the North Sea during Friday afternoon cookouts, it is meat from those same cows that they are eating. The cows’ manure, of course, nourishes the fields that grow the hay. (Or as Officer Halvor puts it, “Let me say it the polite way: the animals’ shit goes back to the earth.”) Inmates plant that hay with the help of the horses Ronja and Brun, and the hay is grown without pesticides, because it’s understood that if you put poison into a body you will potentially cause that body—and consequently the community of which it is a part—harm.

In Nature as Measure, the agronomist Wes Jackson argues that the state of our landscapes reflects our well-being as a society. So, too, does the state of our justice system: the conditions of our prisons say something about how we’re faring as a people. Bastøy aims not to punish but to replenish the men it incarcerates. (An annual evaluation asks: Was your corrections officer “gentle and helpful?”) Call it a camp for criminals if you like, shrugs Nilsen: Bastøy’s recidivism rate is 16 percent.

“You want me to make someone a bad person?” says the current warden, Tom Eberhardt. “I can do this. It’s no problem.” Far more difficult, he asserts, is restoration.

And restoration makes sense: The maximum sentence in Norway is twenty-one years. Everyone is going home.

Jennifer Bowen Hicks is the founder of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and a writer whose work has received the Iowa Review’s Tim McGinnis Award, the Arts and Letters Prize, and others. Reporting for this story was made possible with generous funding from the Jerome Foundation.


  1. What a brilliant initiative. Many people who end up in prison have never been taught about community and values and being part of humanity instead of working against it. I’m sure this programme gives people self respect and a purpose other than crime.

  2. Nice job here. Well written and good to see people getting the help they really need.

  3. I’ve read about this before. An excellent idea. Nearly all prison systems are unduly punitive. The ‘detterant’ effect is not as strong as most would think.

    Truly informative article.

  4. That is a great piece. Never thought that way. Brilliant.

  5. This is a brilliant option and gives them somethinf to keep themselves busy with other than continuing the violence inside prison.
    Hopefully this is the way forward

  6. Wow, this is definitely a brilliant idea. Not only do the inmates work and sustain the “prison”, but I would call this place a habitat for correction for the inmates, but also a way to sustain the earth and animals around them. This place, I think is a great work of the warden and all involved, in trying to make the world a better place. If only this would work everywhere, what a wonderful world this would be.

  7. Now THIS is an amazing idea. I live in the United States, and we honestly don’t even try to rehabilitate our prisoners. When their sentences are up, many of them come out just as broken, if not more, than they were before they went in. A high number of them end up right back in prison for various reasons – lack of social skills due to long periods of incarceration, inability to get a job, etc. No one really seems to care about the fact that we’ve essentially written off this segment of our population.

  8. Rehabilitate prisoners yes – but why is killing the animals and supporting violence a part of this? And why is it glorified?
    We must promote compassion and non-violence.

  9. I entered the US prison system at age 18 on a long sentence – never imagining I would be incarcerated in my lifetime. The jury of my peers were not from my neighborhood, and confused at the judge’s instructions and DA’s shenanigans – asking to be instructed again. And instructed they were – to sentence me to life. I emerged from that darkness close to 40 years old and will live with it always. Despite their efforts, I became a good man and have defied the decades old US prison recidivism statistics of 3 out of 4 returning. Now older and much wiser, I was touched deeply by this article. Why do we think we need to regularly commit criminal acts to punish crime? The warden here has it so right: It’s easy to make a bad person. People do bad things for a reason. There is no Us and Them – only Us. If the conditions of our prisons say anything about how we are faring as a people in this country, we are in very deep trouble. But it’s hidden; so it continues. Until it hits home. And it always does. If we could only practice what so many preach, and ‘err’ on the side of compassion. Thank you for a glimpse of humanity here.

  10. If the United States had prisons like Norway, if only! Imagine the US as a real leader in the free world.

  11. Excellent, I so relate to this, but then I would, I’m the Ecology Lead for the UK Ministry of Justice; and I run the MoJ Ecology network, where we work with prisons and courts to bring havens to wildlife, whilst involving the restorative justice agenda and offenders….and it works; how do I know I used to be a Prison Farm Manager and I saw this work at first hand its inspiring.

    Keep up the great work.

  12. Just brilliant, I can so relate to this, but there again I should, as I head up the UK Ministry of Justice Ecology network and being a past Prison Farm Manager; I saw restorative justice at first hand, and the impacts of offenders working with animals and nature. Nature and offenders can make a difference not only to the offenders lives and their own life choices, but to communities and to that of the wider ecosystem, let’s see more of this.

  13. I agree with Chris. In the United States, prisoners are only briefly freed from their cells to perform menial tasks like weeding or mowing. Norway seems to have a vastly different perspective. Not only can prisoners be more useful members of society with this outlook, but also they gain responsibility for an intelligent creature and perhaps in that their lives gain meaning. Who knew that ecology and prison would ever go hand in hand? I love it!

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