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Eco-prison aims to change hard-core criminals

The minimum-security Bastoey Prison, a Norwegian lockup on a lush island that has often been compared to a summer camp, now has claimed a new distinction: the world's first ecological prison.
An inmate and horse rake up debris on a beach near Norway's Bastoey Prison on July 19. Some of the toughest criminals in Norway are serving their term on the island, where inmates raise sheep and cultivate organic strawberries.Sveinung U. Ystad / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

The minimum-security Bastoey Prison, a lockup on a lush island that has often been compared to a summer camp, now has claimed a new distinction: the world's first ecological prison.

Without locked gates or barbed wire, the prison operates with solar panels, wood-fire heating instead of oil, strict recycling and eco-friendly food production — a 10-year project officials say was aimed at helping the roughly 115 prisoners learn values such as protecting the environment and respecting others.

"Our job is to create the best possible development opportunities for the individual, and lay the foundation for possible changes," said prison director Oeyvind Alnaes.

The Bastoey facility, where inmates include murderers and rapists, is nothing like the grim vision of prisons with barred doors that slam shut with a resounding clang during lock-downs. It is a lush green in summer, with beaches and an adjacent nature preserve.

Inmates live in houses, are not locked in and are responsible for the care of about 200 chickens, eight horses, 40 sheep and 20 cows. They also tend the fields, pick berries and fish on the prison's 30-foot boat.

The island is about 1 1/2 miles from the mainland, but that's not what keeps inmates in. Few escape from Norway's most pleasant prison because that could mean returning to a maximum-security unit.

All of the prison's agricultural products are raised without artificial chemicals, such as insecticides or man-made fertilizers, and with humane treatment of livestock. It also strives to be energy self-sufficient, using renewable power.

Alnaes said the prison's philosophy is what he called "human ecology."

"Living in an environment that gives them individual responsibility, challenges and demands ... can motivate inmates to change their behavior," he said.

At a ceremony Monday to celebrate the prison achieving its ecological goal, Norwegian Justice Minister Knut Storberget said it was "a symbol that it is possible to think differently. ... We need alternatives to prison, and different prison alternatives."

Norway does not have the death penalty and the maximum prison sentence is 21 years. Few prisoners serve the entire term.

At Bastoey, inmates can study, seek counseling, play tennis, have their own TV and swim in the waters around the island, some 45 miles south of the capital, Oslo.

An inmate serving a sentence for narcotics smuggling told the Oslo newspaper Aftenposten that at his previous maximum-security prison he grew depressed and psychologically troubled.

"When I got to Bastoey, it was like I got air under my wings," the prisoner, identified only as Knut, 41, told the Oslo daily Aftenposten.

Prisoners must apply for the chance to serve their sentence at Bastoey, which asks applicants on its Web site:" "Is Bastoey the place for you?"