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    A tour of Halden, the most human prison in the world

    The Halden prison in Norway is a model of how a prison should work: prisoners sometimes live in better conditions than if they were free.
    To see how the prison works, representatives of the Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Romania – Helsinki Committee toured the Halden prison in Norway, where prisoners enjoy many freedoms of daily life, although not their own freedom.
    We started our visit to Halden prison with a “prison style” breakfast in the conference room with the director and the oldest guard: vegetable and ham omelette, salad, orange juice and coffee.
    The prisoners eat the same. It’s not like in Romania, where something is taken from a cauldron. They receive precooked meals, which only need to be heated in the kitchens available in each section of the prison. There is a room for every 10-12 cells, and it looks like a living room of a normal house. If they do not like the food they are given, they can buy other products at the prison store, which looks like a normal supermarket, with a wide range of products.
    Built from another point of view
    Halden is not a typical prison. Not even for Norway. Everyone reminds us. It is true that we saw the same quality of facilities in the Bredtveit women’s prison , which we visited a day earlier. However, Halden was built from a different approach.
    On 30 hectares in a small and elegant village between the fjords of southern Norway where people go to Sweden by boat to make the purchase because it is cheaper, a handful of Danish architects joined their talent to conceive this work. They built something that, if it were not for the wall that surrounds it, would not be a prison at all. It could be a hospital, a school or any other public building. Made of wood, glass, steel and stone. The windows do not have bars, there are no watchtowers or barbed wire and there are no electric fences. There are no cameras either; neither in the corridors, nor in the rooms, nor in the classrooms or workshops. The guards do not carry weapons.
    As one former director pointed out, one can not be freer than that; only if they were given the keys to their cells.
    They use an innovative security concept known as “dynamic security”: the guards mix with the prisoners and, being permanently there, they manage to prevent possible conflicts by discussing in situ the problems with the prisoners. There are 258 prisoners, which makes Halden the second largest prison in Norway by number of prisoners, and has 290 employees.
    Moderate punishment
    The concept that applies there, applies throughout Norway: life in prison should not be different from life outside it; The only difference is the lack of freedom of movement. The punishment should not go beyond what the prisoner needs to receive help; the prisoners are prepared for their freedom from the first day of jail.
    In Romania, the first thing prisoners should do when entering the prison system is to attend a course called “Preparing for life in prison”. Other things are required too, but only after that.
    Are Høidal, the director of Halden, says his goal is to make “prisoners work, pay taxes, have a family and motivation.” Therefore, from their first day in prison, prisoners receive help to find, through counseling, their motivation. Not everyone finds it. Halden is a maximum security prison, where there are murderers, rapists, people with mental illnesses, drug users and small criminals.
    In the news, but with a price
    Halden is proud to be the best prison in the world, where all inmates would want to be incarcerated, and only 20% of them re-off a much lower percentage than the Norwegian average in previous decades and well below the current rates in Romania and other countries.
    The percentage of relapse, however, is a debatable concept, because, for it to be correct, it must be measured after five years from his release from prison. Also keep in mind that some of the criminals are foreign citizens; these constitute one third of the total number of prisoners in Norway and are not included in the percentage because most are expelled back to their country of origin upon their release.
    As Are Høidal admits, that 20% is only a period of 2 years after its release in libertady only counts the citizens of Nordic countries.
    Halden is already famous for what happens there. Michael Madsen and Michael Moore have made documentaries about it; it has been covered by the international press; the guards, in their inauguration, made a video in which they sang “We are the world “; Every week delegations of all kinds come to know its secret.
    The secret is, of course, in the attitude towards the prisoners; but also in money. It opened in 2010 and cost 250 million dollars, a price that Høidal admits, today would be double. Not all countries can afford to offer such conditions to their inmates. At the same time, not all societies are willing to treat their inmates in such a human way.
    One gun per jail
    In the 1980s, things were also very different in Norway. Are Høidal began working in the penitentiary system in 1983, and he remembers that, at that time, many of the prisoners had psychiatric problems, the prisons were penetrated by the drug cartels, there were protests of prisoners and they also escaped, three guards They were murdered and the relapse rate was 70% – as in Romania today.
    However, the guards do not carry weapons, neither now nor then. In case it was necessary, they called the police. The director states that even in the 60s, there was only one gun per jail, kept in a safe place.
    “When I entered the system, they told me we did not have to talk to the prisoners about their problems, our only duty was to guard them.” The interaction of the guards with the prisoners was minimal, now our guards work and eat with them, they do sports and they walk together, this is the concept of dynamic security, the guard has become, rather, a social worker, “explains Are Høidal.
    Of course, some did not like it; both among the prisoners and among the guards. Even today jokes are made about the closeness between these two categories. In the dining room there is a huge mural where there is a guard that is represented as a giant mosquito. He says that everyone who can not stand life with a guard should think about what life would be like in a tent full of mosquitoes.
    The involvement of the entire community is necessary
    The success of this concept is not, however, only the work of the justice system; the whole community must be involved. The Resolution (the White Sheet) adopted in 2008, according to which the justice system has to focus on normalcy and rehabilitate prisoners, was supported and signed by five i: Justice, Education, Culture, Health and by local authorities .
    In the same way that a child is educated by the whole town, the whole community needs to get involved to help an ex-prisoner become a good citizen again. In the Norwegian system, for example, employees such as doctors, priests and teachers do not work exclusively in prisons; They also work in the community, so the community gets used to the delinquents and they get used to the community.
    In Romania, a similar document was signed for the penitentiary system; it even became a law through an emergency decree in July 2015. It is called the “National Strategy for the Social Reintegration of Detainees, Implemented at the National Level” . The philosophy is, basically, that there must be collaboration, and that all parts of the community must participate in the reinsertion of the prisoners. Except that this strategy obviously does not work. Nobody knows, at least officially, why.
    The prisoners are active
    In Halden, as in any other Norwegian prison, prisoners can not simply hang out in the rooms and in front of the television, although they have everything they need in their 12-square-meter cells. They are forced to choose between work or training. They can sign up for various courses, from creativity courses to school courses in chemistry, physics and philosophy; You can also choose to specialize in one of the seven vocational courses offered, and take a degree. These include carpentry, car service, mechanics and metallurgy, or learning to play an instrument in one of the three prison recording studios
    When we entered the studio, two prisoners dressed as old rockers were working on one of the tracks for their first album. Their group is called Criminal Records and they laughed when we told them they did not look like prisoners. “Well, we’re going to pretend we’re not” -said one of them, who added that he had to stay in jail “for three more albums”.
    “It’s still a prison”
    As the director points out constantly, Halden is still a prison. There are inmates who get angry and are sometimes isolated. But even the spaces where they take walks are different. They have drawings on the walls and views of the huge garden surrounding the prison buildings. A drawing of a prisoner who throws the ball of the chain that joins his legs is a kind of prison icon. It is printed on various promotional materials made by the prisoners, in the graphic studio and sold in the store of the Red Cross of the city.
    In the prison corridor, on the bulletin board of the Office for Reintegration, there is a poster in A3 that promotes a prison that the Norwegians have rented in the Netherlands. “Holidays in the Netherlands,” jokes the director, while explaining that prisoners who ask to be transferred to the Netherlands must know some English. This proved to be a problem for many of the foreign detainees.
    Are Høidal finished the presentation of his “kingdom” without having said anything reprehensible about Halden prison. During the visit we talked to several prisoners, including a Romanian. Everyone praised her, except for one Albanian who complained, whispering that everything is a facade managed by the public relations department that makes Halden famous, but that life in prison is still hard.
    The director admitted that Halden is still a prison, but it is the best society can offer to criminals now, and that it will remain there for the next hundred years, if humanity has not yet found a way to forgive those who make mistakes.