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Almost without exception, photographs of prisons in Norway featured in international media over the past two years have appeared below a headline featuring the word “luxury” or in simplified articles about the relative comfort of Norwegian prisons. The implication? That no criminals should live in safe, clean, environments and that rehabilitation is folly at best and an insulting waste of taxpayers money at worst.

I’d like to recommend a different take. Six of Fin Serck-Hanssen‘s photographs from Normalising Judgement appear throughout this post.

Serck-Hannsen’s view is neither expressly bleak nor expressly sugary. These drab prisons are nothing to get overly-emotive about and as such probably reflect fairly the predictable life in highly-managed institutions that try to redirect the most antisocial adult behaviours. As you click through to the links included herein, please refer back to Serck-Hanssen’s Normalising Judgement to challenge the “rosy” picture that may have been painted of Norway’s prisons in international media.

Completed in 2008, Serck-Hanssen’s Normalising Judgement pre-dates Breivik’s massacre. The Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security was drafting a white paper, and invited Serck-Hanssen to document multiple prisons. As long as privacy was safeguarded and security was not put at risk, Serck-Hanssen was able to work freely throughout the prisons.

Serck-Hanssen told Mono blog, “In my view, Norwegians in general have the idea that prisons are very human institutions. I wanted to find out how much truth there was in this assumption.”


When mass-murderer Anders Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in prison by a Norwegian court, it wasn’t at all clear to me how the verdict related to my efforts here at Prison Photography. The court ruled he was sane, yet I am quite happy to describe his ideas as repulsive and his actions as deranged. His offensive gestures and attitudes played out in the court reflected his right-wing islamophobic motives for the murder of 77 innocents on Utoya Island in July 2011.

Breivik has entered the select company of infamous and clearly unhinged murderers that history unfortunately seems to remember. Here at Prison Photography, my concerns are for the majority of American prisoners who are non-violent, poorly-educated, warehoused and given few opportunities to rehabilitate should they find themselves subject to the unusually long sentences the U.S. hands down. Breivik has zero in common with these men, women and children.

Somewhat surprisingly, there is commentary that is spurred by ideas and images about Breivik’s case and that relates to American prisons. Said commentary revolves around the issue of prison conditions. Namely, it centres on the divergent expectations of people in different nations on conditions for convicted criminals.

Even preceding Breivik’s horrendous crimes, there was a characterisation of Norwegian prisons as being “luxury” (the same characterisation/accusation has been aimed at the prisons of other European nations – Austria springs to mind). Sometimes, the term “humane” was used; a welcome alternative given that the term “luxury” often carries an inferred suspicion and jealousy.

In the week following the Utoya Island massacre, innumerable news sources ran stories about how Breivik would potentially serve his sentence in a “cushy” or “super-lux” or, closer to the truth, “progressive” prison.

As it is the highest security facility in the country, it was understandable that international media assumed that Breivik would be held in Norway’s recently constructed (2010) Halden Fengsel Prison. He is actually being held in Ila Prison, near Oslo (details; 14 photos; and the psychology of solitary).


Repeated slideshows often feigned dismay and disgust, or intended to stoke up anger. But it was an anger engineered for international audiences, not Norwegians. Norway was busy mourning, getting to grips with introspection and formalising the logistics to carry out one of the most high profile cases in its legal history. This isn’t to say that Norwegians didn’t feel anger, but they also knew they had to meet Breivik’s unparalleled assault with a dignified and civil response.

In the U.S., a country that routinely hands down the death penalty and Life Without Parole, Breivik’s sentence of 21 years seems comparatively tiny, even foolish.* Most American citizens would balk at the notion. And yet, when the verdict was passed, most Norwegian celebrated the fact that Norwegian law had handed down it’s most severe punishment and that the civility of the judicial system had remained in tact throughout despite the extreme heinous nature of Breivik’s crime (I only consumed news-stories on this event in the UK, so narratives may have differed elsewhere).

If societies are to learn and move forward from such horrendous events then they need something to rally around. In Norway, the humane and sensible legal system, in the response to acts of utter criminality, was an obvious ‘something.’ Americans can never rally around the death of someone sentenced to execution. Even in non-capital offenses, how proud can any U.S. citizen be of a legal system that has sentenced tens of millions to broken prison systems and is responsible for 2.3 million prisoners on any given day?

Prison (or the electric chair) shouldn’t be considered the final chapter. Prison should be considered an early chapter toward mending a broken individual and society’s shortcomings that led a given individual to transgress. Prison conditions are key in successfully rehabilitating individuals and successfully relieving society of future crime and the associated financial costs.

Dylan Matthews explains on the Washington Post’s Wonk Blog that Making prison worse doesn’t reduce crime. It increases it:

It turns out there’s a pretty extensive literature on the effects of harsh prison conditions. One finding that is growing more and more accepted is that harsh sentences, if anything, increase recidivism. […] Gerald Gaes and Scott Camp found that higher security levels increase recidivism by about 31 percent. Lawrence Bench and Terry Allen randomly assigned prisoners to medium and maximum security sectors of a prison and found that prisoners in maximum security were no less likely to commit in-prison offenses. […] Geographic isolation increases recidivism. A study from Rafael Di Tella and  Ernesto Schargrodsky found that people who are sentenced to house arrest with ankle monitors reoffend at a much lower rate than those sentence to traditional prison. And a wide array of studies have found that in-prison education programs reduce recidivism while improving quality of life. The findings on the effects of prison conditions on recidivism, in short, are a matter of scholarly consensus.

No prison is a cake walk. All prisoners deserve to be safe. I’d argue all prisoners should be as meaningfully engaged in rehabilitative activities and subject to civil attitudes as is possible. But, I also understand why the idea of retribution for some extends to a desire to see prisoners wallow in poor conditions. I hope I’ve made the case here that Norwegian prison are not luxury and that furthermore shouldn’t be the exception. Better prison conditions means less crime in the future. Better prison conditions means improved individuals.

* The maximum sentence possible under Norwegian law is 21 years, although in special circumstances, and Breivik’s certainly one, judges may extend the sentence as it nears an end.

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All images Fin Serck-Hanssen. Get the book Normalizing Judgement here. Via here & now mono blog. Thanks to Robert Gumpert for the tip.


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