A trip to Oslo and through the Norwegian penal exceptionalism

A trip to Oslo and through the Norwegian penal exceptionalism

After a year studying Criminology from the Dutch perspective, Leiden students set off on a journey to learn about the Norwegian criminal justice system and its exceptionalism. What can the Netherlands, and the world, learn from Norway?

With chapter 3 of Vander Beken’s The Role of Prison in Europe (2016), "The Northern Star", at hand, a small group of master’s students from Leiden University flew to Oslo, Norway, on 28 April 2019. Organised by the Department of Criminology, the trip included visits to Oslo University, the Correctional Service, Ullersmo Prison and the Police University. The focus of the trip was to uncover the so-called Norwegian penal exceptionalism, which is marked by the low levels of imprisonment recorded in the country and the superior conditions of Norwegian prisons in contrast to those of most jurisdictions across the world. But before the activities began, two events took place that shaped the experiences of our group of international students visiting from the Netherlands.

On the morning of our arrival, the group visited the 22 July Centre in the Regjeringskvartalet (the government quarter). It was our very first impression of Norway. The centre’s exhibition recounted the events of 22 July 2011, when terrorist attacks in central Oslo and on the island of Utoya were perpetrated by Anders Breivik, a right-wing extremist, against government buildings and the Worker’s Youth League (AUF) summer camp. In the attacks, 77 people were killed and hundreds injured. It was the deadliest attack that had occurred in Norway since World War II, shaping the country’s penal innovations and current societal mentality. After the exhibition, we headed for a walking tour conducted by a local guide. The main tourist attractions were covered while the tall, bearded Norwegian explained to his foreign followers the origins of Norway's strong sense of community and shared values. The Norwegian struggles for an independent territory and sovereignty were highlighted. These two lessons that we learned on our first day - the trauma of the terrorist attacks and the cultural traits existing in Norway - remained with us during each scheduled educational activity and underlined the many facets of the Norwegian penal state.

The first stop was Oslo University, on Monday 29 April. We were warmly greeted by the teaching staff led by Helene Gundhus, a professor at the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law. The lectures that followed discussed a variety of topics. Professor Thomas Ugelvik introduced the basis of the Scandinavian penal exceptionalism and guided us through our first look at the carceral state of Norway. Professor Katja Franko, conversely, revealed the country’s struggle with illegal immigration and the response in high deportation rates. Professor John Todd then talked about his research focusing on understanding crime desistance through situational, individual, structural and relational elements. Finally, Professor Helene Gundhus enlightened us on the connection between the current police reforms (resulting from public pressure for quicker and more immediate responses to emergencies) and their impact on citizens. Much was learned from the lectures and throughout them we first recounted the lessons of the previous day. On one hand, Profs. Ugelvik and Todd’s insights concerning Norwegian strategies to deal with deviant individuals inside and outside prisons relate to the country’s historical tradition of deep community ties, which eventually guided Norway to adopt a more humane and rehabilitative approach when dealing with national offenders. On the other, the same trait of communal values enhanced the rejection of those who did not share the same background or culture, which aligned with the traumatic experience of the events of 22 July 2011 to give more power to the police, as explained by profs. Frank and Gundhus. In that sense, immigration and crime were intertwined as the effectiveness of Norwegian police force was measured by deportation numbers and immigration control.

Following this interesting and elucidative morning at Oslo University, the Leiden group headed to the Correctional Service of Norway Staff Academy (KRUS) in Lillestrom. At KRUS, we delved deeper into Scandinavian penal exceptionalism and the reasons behind the Norwegian commitment to penal welfarism in contrast to the international tendency towards harsher law enforcement. As has already been explained to us, penal welfarism emerged in the aftermath of World War II when countries sought to provide better living conditions for prisoners. The later worldwide decline in this type of penology, based mainly on the costs of rehabilitative measures, did not affect Norway. Oil discoveries fostered the wealthy state to maintain its traditional approach that every citizen was entitled to a support system, not only in relation to health and education but also rehabilitation. At KRUS, we again identified the lessons presented on our first day. The Norwegian support system, however, does not apply to those born outside Norway. The consequences of this can be seen in the disproportionate representation of foreigners in the prison population: over a third of incarcerated individuals in Norway are non-nationals. Accordingly, the possibility of preventive detention, namely the limitless extension of a prison sentence by the courts based on the inmate’s behaviour and their prospects after prison, and the augmentation of sentence length for terrorism (from 21 years to 30 years), following the 2011 attacks, show the hardening of Norway’s criminal law, countering the penal exceptionalism discourse.

On the third day, we were welcomed to Ullersmo Prison. Guided by two friendly prison officers through the inside of the compound, we were astonished. Our small group composed of Brazilian, British, Irish, Indian, Chinese and Dutch nationalities was truly impressed with what we saw. The facilities were spacious, with rooms designated for music, religion and exercise, cells with private bathrooms and televisions, a kitchen in every block, as well as a full-view balcony and an outside pool and life-size chess board featuring as entertainment for the inmates. We could not help but notice the significant differences with the prison conditions of our own homeland. Likewise, listening to the staff perspective on the human rights of detainees and their efforts to produce an environment that encourages rehabilitation made us realize that, inside this prison, the sense of community that exists in Norway overcame any trauma generated by the terrorist attacks. It reminded us of why Norway is considered exceptional.

The last activity planned for us was the visit to the Norwegian Police University College (PHS) on 2 May. There, we learned that police education in the country was centralized as the PHS was the sole institution to provide a bachelor’s degree in Police Studies. With a duration of 3 years, the course attracted thousands of applicants, accepting around 550 students per year. The overall focus of the PHS was to prepare the students for a future of unknown challenges and tasks to be met, in which the goals were flexible/adaptable study programmes, including scientific and research skills. Nevertheless, controversies emerge as academization, implied by the high professionalization of the police, generates a fear that academically trained police officers will not do well in physically demanding field work. Furthermore, research conducted by the PHS (RECPOL) discovered that Norwegian police students favour field work rather than academia. The conclusion was that the current Norwegian societal mentality called for a highly trained police force to respond to serious and urgent threats such as that of 2011.

After 5 days in Oslo, our small group finally returned home to Leiden. The past days had taught us a great deal as we uncovered the background to Norway’s penal exceptionalism and the contradictions that came with it. Ultimately, the trip enabled insights and discussions over international penology and comparative research. Although Norway’s criminal justice system proved to have more layers than initially expected, the feeling that accompanied us on the flight home was that much can be learned from the "Northern Star".


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