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.