Arne Kvernvik Nilsen

Former Governor of the Human Ecological Prison of Bastøy

Losing liberty

‘Losing liberty is sufficient punishment – once in custody we should focus on reducing the risk that offenders pose to society after they leave prison,’ Arne Kvernvik Nilsen told The Guardian when he stepped down as Governor of the Human Ecological Prison on the island of Bastøy, near Oslo. The former pastoral worker who turned into prison governor surprised the world with a remarkably low reoffending rate of just 16% by former Bastøy inmates. This is a huge contrast with the 70% generally measured for prisons across the rest of the Western world.

Nilsen spent 15 years in pastoral and social work, including developing and managing institutions, before joining the Norwegian correctional services. For 11 years he was an adviser, senior adviser and assistant deputy general to the Norwegian Ministry of Police and Justice, before he became Governor of Bastøy island prison.

Being a practicing gestalt psychotherapist, Nilsen, realised a prison is full of people with all sorts of problems. ‘Should I be in charge of adding more problems to the prisoner on behalf of the state, making you an even worse threat to larger society because I have treated you badly while you are in my care?,’ Nilsen asks in The Guardian.

Critics have described Bastøy as a holiday camp. But Nilsen says: ‘I run this prison like a small society. I give respect to the prisoners who come here and they respond by respecting themselves, each other and this community’. Today, Nilsen works as an advisor and is engaged in a project to develop a human ecological prison in the Danube Delta, Romania.

Government, Prison, Ecology, Politics, Netherlands PINC.17