Prison Ecology

Lay of the Land
Art by James Wardell

When a foal is born on Bastøy Island Prison in Norway, it is the inmates who help deliver it and the inmates who name it. Bastøy Boy, the newest foal in the community, arrived last spring in the dark of night, his birth overseen by inmates whose full-time job it is to brush and feed and care for the horses. When the foal is old enough to wear horseshoes, an inmate named George will pat the foal’s thigh and brush rocks and debris from one after another of its hooves. He will do this for nine horses, thirty-six hooves in all. Then George will feed and water the horses before closing their stalls and calling it a day.

Bastøy Boy has the leggy profile of a preteen and stays close to his mother, Ronja II, who is daughter to Ronja, the matriarch in a team of workhorses that are integral to life on this island. The horses plow the fields and haul the trees that inmates fell in the forest. These trees become logs that feed wood-burning furnaces. The wood-burning furnaces heat the cottages that are cared for and inhabited by inmates.

So it goes at Bastøy, the world’s first human-ecological prison. Clearly, the men here have made mistakes severe enough to find themselves incarcerated. But Bastøy’s physical design—lush, unfenced, and escapable—suggests that a man who is invited to work with his feet on the earth and his eyes to the sky, and who functions as an integral part of a community, will learn interdependency better than a man whose movements are choreographed by others, and then only when he’s not locked in a cell. When our understanding of community changes, the hope goes, so do our actions.

Former warden, minister, and psychotherapist Arne Kvernvik Nilsen implemented and champions Bastøy’s human-ecological model. His philosophy is so jam-packed with humanistic ideals and high-minded concepts that it could be an entire undergraduate major, and a challenging one at that. If there’s an irony to his approach, it’s that a philosophy so heady on paper feels so organic in practice. He speaks often of dirt—as in, the dirt of the field he put his hands into when he helped plant crops. He speaks of windows—those he washed himself. He speaks of eye contact, and shared work, and being real and present with others, staff and inmates alike.

“No. Rehabilitation isn’t always practical,” he says. “Sometimes it is only habilitation. But we have to try, don’t we?”

And that trying comes about in the most humble way. (Humble, from Latin—humus—meaning earth.) The incarcerated men at Bastøy grow most of their own food and they process their own recycling; they are responsible for not just overseeing but nourishing living things on this five-acre island, including the land, plants, and relationships. By design, the community is small and nearly self-sustaining. Both prisoners and staff drive electric cars; they’re working, always, to reduce CO2 emissions, mindful of how their actions affect the earth, how the earth’s health affects the weather, their crops, their lives. Inmates live together in cottages, not cells; in every cottage lives a huset far, or “house father” who is in charge of loading the wood into the home’s furnace. The house father keeps the home fires burning for himself and the other inmates, and if he should forget, everyone in the house feels the chill.

It’s another man’s job to fell those trees, to chop them, to load them onto horse carriages. The inmates raise the lambs and cows that they eat, and they plant and harvest the animals’ food. The cows roam the island, preferring a wide clearing deep in the island’s forest, beside which inmates often jog.

When inmates and officers eat burgers together on a hill overlooking the North Sea during Friday afternoon cookouts, it is meat from those same cows that they are eating. The cows’ manure, of course, nourishes the fields that grow the hay. (Or as Officer Halvor puts it, “Let me say it the polite way: the animals’ shit goes back to the earth.”) Inmates plant that hay with the help of the horses Ronja and Brun, and the hay is grown without pesticides, because it’s understood that if you put poison into a body you will potentially cause that body—and consequently the community of which it is a part—harm.

In Nature as Measure, the agronomist Wes Jackson argues that the state of our landscapes reflects our well-being as a society. So, too, does the state of our justice system: the conditions of our prisons say something about how we’re faring as a people. Bastøy aims not to punish but to replenish the men it incarcerates. (An annual evaluation asks: Was your corrections officer “gentle and helpful?”) Call it a camp for criminals if you like, shrugs Nilsen: Bastøy’s recidivism rate is 16 percent.

“You want me to make someone a bad person?” says the current warden, Tom Eberhardt. “I can do this. It’s no problem.” Far more difficult, he asserts, is restoration.

And restoration makes sense: The maximum sentence in Norway is twenty-one years. Everyone is going home.

 Reporting for this story was made possible with generous funding from the Jerome Foundation.

Jennifer Bowen Hicks spent her formative years in rural West Texas, and her adult years in the Midwest. A writer, arts instructor, editor, and single mother of sons, Jennifer is the Founding Director of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW), which is the largest literary-arts-in corrections organization in the country. She teaches in prisons throughout the state. A Pushcart Prize-winning writer, Jennifer’s work appears in The Sun, Orion, Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, The Iowa Review, among others. She’s the former Nonfiction Editor for Hunger Mountain and she also edits creative prose. Jennifer is working on an essay collection about isolation and connection. She now lives in St. Paul.


  1. What a brilliant initiative. Many people who end up in prison have never been taught about community and values and being part of humanity instead of working against it. I’m sure this programme gives people self respect and a purpose other than crime.

  2. Nice job here. Well written and good to see people getting the help they really need.

  3. I’ve read about this before. An excellent idea. Nearly all prison systems are unduly punitive. The ‘detterant’ effect is not as strong as most would think.

    Truly informative article.

  4. That is a great piece. Never thought that way. Brilliant.

  5. This is a brilliant option and gives them somethinf to keep themselves busy with other than continuing the violence inside prison.
    Hopefully this is the way forward

  6. Wow, this is definitely a brilliant idea. Not only do the inmates work and sustain the “prison”, but I would call this place a habitat for correction for the inmates, but also a way to sustain the earth and animals around them. This place, I think is a great work of the warden and all involved, in trying to make the world a better place. If only this would work everywhere, what a wonderful world this would be.

  7. Now THIS is an amazing idea. I live in the United States, and we honestly don’t even try to rehabilitate our prisoners. When their sentences are up, many of them come out just as broken, if not more, than they were before they went in. A high number of them end up right back in prison for various reasons – lack of social skills due to long periods of incarceration, inability to get a job, etc. No one really seems to care about the fact that we’ve essentially written off this segment of our population.

  8. Rehabilitate prisoners yes – but why is killing the animals and supporting violence a part of this? And why is it glorified?
    We must promote compassion and non-violence.

  9. I entered the US prison system at age 18 on a long sentence – never imagining I would be incarcerated in my lifetime. The jury of my peers were not from my neighborhood, and confused at the judge’s instructions and DA’s shenanigans – asking to be instructed again. And instructed they were – to sentence me to life. I emerged from that darkness close to 40 years old and will live with it always. Despite their efforts, I became a good man and have defied the decades old US prison recidivism statistics of 3 out of 4 returning. Now older and much wiser, I was touched deeply by this article. Why do we think we need to regularly commit criminal acts to punish crime? The warden here has it so right: It’s easy to make a bad person. People do bad things for a reason. There is no Us and Them – only Us. If the conditions of our prisons say anything about how we are faring as a people in this country, we are in very deep trouble. But it’s hidden; so it continues. Until it hits home. And it always does. If we could only practice what so many preach, and ‘err’ on the side of compassion. Thank you for a glimpse of humanity here.

  10. If the United States had prisons like Norway, if only! Imagine the US as a real leader in the free world.

  11. Excellent, I so relate to this, but then I would, I’m the Ecology Lead for the UK Ministry of Justice; and I run the MoJ Ecology network, where we work with prisons and courts to bring havens to wildlife, whilst involving the restorative justice agenda and offenders….and it works; how do I know I used to be a Prison Farm Manager and I saw this work at first hand its inspiring.

    Keep up the great work.

  12. Just brilliant, I can so relate to this, but there again I should, as I head up the UK Ministry of Justice Ecology network and being a past Prison Farm Manager; I saw restorative justice at first hand, and the impacts of offenders working with animals and nature. Nature and offenders can make a difference not only to the offenders lives and their own life choices, but to communities and to that of the wider ecosystem, let’s see more of this.

  13. I agree with Chris. In the United States, prisoners are only briefly freed from their cells to perform menial tasks like weeding or mowing. Norway seems to have a vastly different perspective. Not only can prisoners be more useful members of society with this outlook, but also they gain responsibility for an intelligent creature and perhaps in that their lives gain meaning. Who knew that ecology and prison would ever go hand in hand? I love it!

  14. So read Mark (November 25th above) who says it all.

  15. Wonderful! Inspiring to reach for the best in people and give then an environment that fosters the best. A brilliant variation of a social pressure group. So many lessons here for our failed system of incarceration. As a clinicalPsychologist, I deeply appreciate the understanding implicit here, that people are capable of growth and change. Thank you for this article.

    Worth seeing Michael Moore’s film “Where to Invade Next” for its visit to a different but similarly inspiring Norwegian prison.

  16. Have you ever heard about the Thirteenth Amendment?
    The Thirteenth Amendment (Amendment XIII) to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. (Wikepedia) It means that prisoners in US prisons are slaves. That is why it is such a lucrative market. Among other “features” of this, detainees work for companies at a wage that defies imagination. This has nothing to do with rehabilitation since many companies just take advantage of this “program” to increase their profits at rates that would not envy Chinese workers. I like the Norwegian take on getting people to so something constructive. It reminds me on the Native Americans and Canadians justice system whereas one who commits a bad deed must repair what has been done through different mechanisms such as community work.
    Strange to see that in the US of A politics so dominated by religion, the reading of the Scripture goes so far. Where is it question of revenge which is the way the justice system is established. I don’t remember having read that in the bible. Maybe we could read it in the Quran? But then in the current atmosphere it is quite surprising no one sees the distinction.

  17. I challenge everyone to think this way. Open up their minds, free their selves enough to understand that we are humans; humans only on this earth to love and not to judge.

  18. The prison inmates in many countries work and sustain the prison. The habitat for correction for the inmates is the governments affair. The Government are not doing anything to rehabilitate the prisoners. That is why many of them always find their way back to prison after release. The long period of incarceration force a lot of them to the grave soon they are released.

  19. Those who commit crime consider themselves apart from society, and their neighbors are their enemies. If you can use a system like this to make them reliant, and essential to their community, the society and they gain. But the US prison system has become a profit making venture, where only a corporation gains anything. What is worse, this capitalist version of “rehabilitation” is increasingly taking over the juvenile detention system, where a community inclusive system could be most beneficial. When will our country value human gain over monetary gain?

  20. US prisons do, in fact, teach skills to prisoners although not necessarily in all states. Skills are taught and prisoners can obtain basic education and, in many cases, advanced degrees. Counseling is also available. In the US, however, most of these self-developmental opportunities are optional. In addition, several prisons in the US do have an agricultural aspect, although certainly less bucolic than described here. This article shows a clear bias, the only solid fact presented is a self reported recidivism rate. There is no mention of the nature of the crimes committed by the inmates nor is there a discussion of the recidivism rate – which is lower than a typical US prison but how does it compare to other Norwegian prisons or other Scandinavian prisons? While rehabilitation might be an important feature in any prison we should also be mindful of the punitive aspect prisons serve.

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