Bastoy Prison Island: “loss of liberty is all the punishment they suffer”

In today’s Guardian, Erwin James visits Norway’s Bastoy prison to look at conditions branded ‘cushy’ and ‘luxurious’, but which deliver the lowest recidivism rates in Europe. The report details the conditions in which prisoners live in Bastoy (in self catering ‘pod’ communities) rather than in mass cellular accommodation, and the attitude towards punishment which prevails in Scandinavia. Even in Norway’s Skien maximum security prison, the loss of liberty is all the punishment that prisoner are intended to suffer.

This report from Bastoy reinforces the differences in penal systems with which carceral geographers are concerned, and recalls the philosophy towards the conditions of imprisonment in neighbouring Finland which is displayed in the Sentences Enforcement Act: “Punishment is a mere loss of liberty: The enforcement of sentence must be organised so that the sentence is only loss of liberty. Punishment shall be enforced so that it does not unnecessarily impede but, if possible, promotes a prisoner’s placement in society. Harms caused by imprisonment must be prevented, if possible. The circumstances in a penal institution must be organised so that they correspond to those prevailing in the rest of society. Prisoners must be treated justly and respecting their human dignity.”

What this essentially means is that Finland has for decades been decoupled from the US (and increasingly the European) tendency to politicize criminal justice policy to the extent that criminal justice becomes a political tool rather than a balanced assessment of criminal justice interventions. As Lappi-Seppälä (2002, 33) observes, in these contexts ‘the higher the level of political authority, the more simplistic the approaches advocated. The results can be seen in slogans that are compressed into two or three words, including “prison works”, “war on drugs” and “zero tolerance”’ which in turn leads politicians to ‘pander to punitive (or presumably punitive) public opinion with harsh tough-on-crime campaigns’. In Finland, prison is not considered to “work” and the solutions to social problems are not ‘sought where they cannot be found – the penal system’ (ibid 33). In Norway and Finland, then, it may be argued that prison policy is informed more by an understanding of the likely success of specific interventions for the stated aims of incarceration, than by a political imperative to respond to public opinion, or as Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2002, 16) has argued, to use the prison system as ‘a project of state-building’ (Moran & Keinänen, 2012).

Much of the work within the new sub-discipline of carceral geography originates in or pertains to the highly incarcerative, or ‘hypercarcerative’ contexts of the US, the UK and the Russian Federation, raising questions over the transferability of theorisations of the carceral to other less carcerative, or actively ‘de-carcerative’ settings. By drawing attention to the penal context of Scandinavia, this Guardian article underlines the need to pay particular attention to context when theorising carceral space.