King of Devil’s Island: Norway’s penal system, past and present

Or, in Norwegian, “Kongen av Bastøy”.

The year is 1915, the place the Bastøy prison, separated from the Norwegian mainland by a narrow fjord. It it to this prison that youths are sent to be moulded into respectable Christian citizens through schooling, hard work and discipline. However, when the hardened Erling is sent to the island, his defiance of the prison’s authorities and the moral foundation that grounds is a source of inspiration for others, and leads ultimately to a rebellion against the unfair system that confines them.

Inspired by a series of true events at Bastøy, King of Devil’s Island is arguably one of the more straightforward prison movies that I have seen (not that I have seen all that many!). The antagonists are mostly painted in black and white – though many of the boys are too, particularly towards the end of the film – but the main youths, Erling and Olav, more than make up for that. The former’s past is something we never quite get a grasp of, but the glimpses we do see are somehow freeing, warm and perhaps bittersweet. More interesting, however, was the latter’s growth from a boy who was merely following the rules so as to earn his ticket off the island (the governor’s signature), to a young man who could no longer overlook the misdemeanours of the governor and his staff. Clichéd though it may be, there is something about witnessing people choosing what is right over that which would produce the best outcome for themselves that will always get to me.

There is another, far more fascinating, point of interest. After several changes over the last century, Bastøy today is once again a prison. However, unlike the stern and cold place depicted in the film, the current prison represents ideals of the Norwegian justice system, where great belief is placed in the ability for convicted criminals to reform (BBC). Bastøy’s 100+ inmates are free to roam the woods and beaches of their island prison. They learn both work and housekeeping skills, and are also given time for leisure. Furthermore, only 5 staff remain on the island overnight to watch over the inmates: this and the fact that the latter are responsible for cooking and cleaning their living areas has also reduced the cost of running the prison. Those who advocate this method of rehabilitation are proud to cite the figure of the 16% re-offending rate – arguably the lowest of all penal institutions in the world.

Of course, that figure needs to be qualified by some facts. The inmates at Bastøy are all carefully chosen: often near the ends of their sentences, and each has also recognised and declared that they might benefit from its lifestyle. However, all of its inmates are hardened criminals, including rapists and murderers… Although it is still an experiment that may not work in other countries and/or places (especially considering how the island is a natural barrier that removes the need for fences), surely that is evidence in itself that there may indeed be better ways to treat the convicted than just throwing them into the slammer?

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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