Erwin James visits Skien high security prison in southern Norway, and finds that behind the forbidding walls rehabilitation and education are key
The entrance to Skien high security prison in southern Norway is as foreboding as any that might be imagined. The grey concrete walls are high and bleak – and appear even more austere against the backdrop of the blazing colours of the autumnal Norwegian forest close to which it has been built.
I have been invited to visit the prison by a teacher who works here. Leif, a gently spoken bear of a man, has been in teaching for more than 20 years – it runs in his family he tells me. "My father was a teacher," he says, "and so was my grandfather." I step through the Judas gate at the side of the main gateway and immediately I feel the weight of confinement. In the UK we call this part of a prison the "sterile area" - no prisoners allowed anywhere near it.
I follow Leif through other smaller steel gates as we make our way up a sloping, winding path that is bordered, perhaps a little incongruously, by flowerbeds and bright shrubs. An eerie peace hangs over the buildings. "The prisoners are all locked in their cells," explains Leif, "but they will be going out on the exercise yard soon, perhaps you would like to join them?"
It is an interesting suggestion, one I'm not too sure about at first. I remember my own time in prison and the discomfort that I and others felt when people from the outside came to "have a look around". It was fine if they engaged and interacted with us, recognising that we too were people. But when that didn't happen there was a real sense of intrusion, of being gaped at, as if we were animals in a zoo.
Meanwhile Leif takes me to the staff canteen. Prison guards are having a break, and a senior officer joins us, a broad-shouldered, tough looking man, with close-cropped hair and a clipped moustache. Leif explains that the man is the officers' union rep. He appears a little suspicious of me at first, but soon relaxes and we chat amiably. I tell him that in Britain we have a view that Scandinavian prisons are among the most progressive in Europe, "but what I've seen so far reminds me very much of the high security prisons that I have experienced at home". He smiles. "It's a prison," he says. "You would know it if you were in here."
Leif beckons me to follow him. "Come, I show you where I work," he says. I follow and soon we are in what I recognise as the education department. It is very clean. He shows me a classroom. There are rows of wooden desks and chairs, like any classroom, except each desk has a computer on it. "Every prisoner here has a computer in the classroom," he says, "and a computer in their cell."
The last bit especially surprises me. In the UK prisoner access to computers is strictly limited. Most education departments have a computer room – but only a dozen or so prisoners will ever be able to use them at any one time, bearing in mind that only 10-30% of any UK prisoner population has regular access to the prison education department. Leif tells me that there are 80 prisoners in Skien. In the whole of Norway there are just over 3,000 prisoners, out of the country's population of around 4m. "I don't suppose the prisoners have access to the internet," I say. Leif looks at me. "But of course," he says. And in their cells? "Yes."
Leif explains that firewalls have been set up to ensure security is maintained. "But they must be able to access the internet," he says, "to help in their education and also so that they know they are still connected to the world." It seems a noble and generous attitude compared to that in the UK. Few governors are prepared to allow prisoners have computers in their cells – and none allow Internet access for prisoners.
"Come," says Leif, "I'll show you the workshops." First we go to the woodworking shed. The machines are big and look complicated. "We train in all aspects of carpentry," he says. Then tells me that a prisoner manufactured all the desks, tables and benches that we have just seen in the classrooms in this workshop. "He is very proud of his work, and we are proud of what he has achieved," says Leif. Other examples of items being made by the prisoners are in various states of completion around the large airy room. "We want them to go back out into the community with skills," says Leif. He then takes me to the metal workshop where the same level of hi-tech machinery is evident.
Finally he takes me out on to the exercise yard where the prisoners are walking and jogging around in circles. They see us arrive and a number come over to meet us. They are surprised when I tell them I was in prison for 20 years and now work as a writer. We chat about how they are serving their time.
Ali, a former Kurdish guerrilla soldier, introduces himself. He says nice things about Leif. "He is good man," he says, "they help us here." Ali is studying for a law degree, which he intends to use to help his people when he returns to his home country after he is released. "But it is hard to keep motivated," he says. "Prison is difficult."
Even with the enlightened attitudes and abundance of facilities this place is still a prison. And it is not meant to be "easy". But at least here the prisoners are treated like men and provided with a constructive and meaningful regime. The differences between this and the impoverished UK system loom large. I shake Ali's hand and we seem to connect in some way. "Just don't give up," I say.
I thank all the prisoners for their time and wish them well on their journeys, and then I leave without turning to look back. I am aware of the huge privilege I now enjoy, of being able to enter a prison and walk out again the same day. Later I reflect on how far we have to go in the UK to even come close to matching the attitudes towards people in prison that I witnessed in Norway.