Punishment that makes a difference? 

RESCALED principles practiced in existing Norwegian prisons 

Norway is a long and narrow country situated north in Europe, and has a relatively low population density. There are few public transport links outside of the big cities, occasionally hard weather affecting the driving conditions and long distances between where people live. As a consequence, there is a need for a relatively large number of prisons. At the same time, the proximity principle is one of the most important principles in the Norwegian Correctional Service. It is acknowledged that closeness to one’s family and the community one will return to is vital for the reintegration process. Norway therefore has a long tradition of having many small-scale district prisons. 

RESCALED from an International Human Rights Law perspective

Graduated with a Master’s degree in International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law (IHRL), my first encounter with prisons’ issues were mostly through a legal prism. My first experience with the detention environment took place during an internship in a human rights organisation in Lomé (Togo). Here, I carried out monitoring activities in detention with the aim of submitting an alternative report to the United Nations human rights bodies on the issues of the carceral system in the country. Afterwards, I continued to study the provisions of the IHRL regarding detention through my academic and professional experiences.

Currently I am working as assistant coordinator of RESCALED in France. In this respect, taking my background knowledge into account, it is interesting to question in what way RESCALED is relevant from an IHRL point of view.

1. Prisons and human rights: Key principles of the IHRL

First, I will recall the main principles of the IHRL regarding detention.

Some International and Regional Human Rights norms are specifically focused on the treatment of incarcerated persons and others include references to this. Although deprivation of liberty is allowed under the IHRL, it must be carried out in a humane and dignity-respecting manner.[1] Persons deprived of their liberty continue to have their fundamental rights, without other restrictions than those inherent to detention.[2] Consequently, incarcerated persons may not be subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment. The European Court of Human Rights, like other human rights bodies, has qualified the conditions of detention as inhumane and degrading in several cases.[3] This qualification is based on the size of the individual space, access to walks and activities, privacy, access to natural light, ventilation and hygiene, amongst other things.[4] In addition, other rights that are guaranteed by international texts, such as the right to privacy and family,[5] freedom of religion,[6] the right to vote,[7] the right to health,[8] etc. also apply to incarcerated persons.

2. RESCALED in the light of the IHRL: Pillars in compliance with human rights

The majority of prison systems face problems, such as overcrowding, characteristics of facilities and difficulties in accessing care and activities, that prevent prisons from meeting these IHRL standards.

By proposing a new model for places of deprivation of liberty, RESCALED offers an alternative that can be compliant with the requirements of the IHRL: replacing the current large prison institutions by small-scale, community-integrated and differentiated detention houses.

2.1 Small-scale – Normalization

First of all, with the principle of a small-scale house instead of a large prison institution, RESCALED aims to normalize the conditions of detention, i.e. to create a place of deprivation of liberty in which the conditions of life resemble as closely as possible those of life in freedom.[9] Normalizing detention conditions is in accordance with international principles on detention. The European Prison Rules state that “life in prison shall approximate as closely as possible the positive aspects of life in the community“,[10] and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (hereafter referred to as the Nelson Mandela Rules) state that “the prison regime should seek to minimize any differences between prison life and life at liberty“.[11]

2.2 Community integration

Second, the detention house should be community-integrated, which creates a dynamic interaction between the detention house and the community and thus facilitates the reintegration into society. This is in line with international texts which indicate that the treatment of persons should aim primarily at the reintegration,[12] reformation and social rehabilitation of incarcerated persons.[13] In particular by “establish[ing] in them the will to lead law-abiding and self-supporting lives after their release and to fit them to do so [and] encourag[ing] their self-respect and develop their sense of responsibility”.[14]

The community integration of detention houses, that RESCALED proposes, echoes international provisions. These state that prisons should encourage incarcerated persons to establish or strengthen relationships with external persons and organisations that can assist their reintegration and that “co-operation with outside social services and as far as possible the involvement of civil society in prison life shall be encouraged”. More specifically, prison systems are encouraged to strengthen or establish links with public health services to enable continuity of care and access to the same standard of care. By giving incarcerated persons a role in the community and having them interact with the community, RESCALED adheres to these principles of international law and even seeks to go further.

2.3 Differentiation

By differentiation of detention houses RESCALED aims to place incarcerated persons in the best context according to their needs. Namely providing the right security level and offering services, activities and programs that fit the needs of the residents.

The Nelson Mandela Rules provide that incarcerated persons should be placed in groups to ensure that they are treated according to their abilities and needs with a view to their social reintegration.[15] Detention houses, given their small scale and the differentiation of the programmes they offer, therefore make it possible to meet these requirements in a comprehensive manner.

Differentiation, according to the security level and the introduction of dynamic security, also meets the requirements of the Nelson Mandela Rules, which state that detention facilities should not provide the same level of security for all incarcerated persons and should have varying degrees of security according to the needs of different groups.[16] By offering a level of security that is appropriate to the risks posed by individuals, detention houses seek to balance security, humane treatment and preparation for release and therefore propose to implement the principles set out in the above rules.

3. The IHRL to change the detention framework?

In conclusion, RESCALED, through the three pillars of a detention house, suggests a model that seems to meet the requirements of the IHRL and seems to be likely providing solutions to the violations of fundamental rights witnessed in detention today.

Furthermore, the inscription of RESCALED in these legal principles could lead to thinking of the IHRL as a means to change the framework of penitentiary systems. While international law can be seen as relatively indeterminate and allowing interpretations of norms and concepts,[17] it is still marked by balances of power in favour of the interests of some actors over others.[18] It is therefore possible to question whether IHRL has the potential to be a means of changing the framework of penitentiary systems or whether it is rather a tool to identify and respond to problems without changing this framework.

In this respect, it seems interesting to broaden the reflections on detention, on its being, functions, place in society, etc. Because of the interdisciplinary approach of RESCALED, we question those aspects and shine a new light on detention.

[1] See for example: Article 10 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

[2] See for example: Human Rights Council, resolution 24/12, 26 September 2013. European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Campbell and Fell v. UK, n°7819/77 and 7878/77, 1984.

[3] See for example: ECHR, J.M.B. and others v. France, n°9671/15 and others, 2020. Human Rights Committee, Brown v. Jamaica, 775/1997, § 6.13.

[4] See for example: ECHR, Muršić v. Croatia, n°7334/13, 2016. ECHR, Cucolas v. Roumania, n°17044/03, 2011.

[5] Article 8, European Convention on Human Rights. Article 17, ICCPR.

[6] Article 9, ECHR. Article 18, ICCPR.

[7] Article 3, 1st Additional Protocol to the ECHR. Article 25, ICCPR.

[8] Article 12, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

[9] Dan Kaminski, “Droits des détenus, normalisation et moindre éligibilité”, Criminologie, vol 43, n°1, spring-summer 2010.

[10] Rule 5, European Prison Rules.

[11] Rule 5.1, United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners

[12] Rule 4.1, United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners

[13] Article 10.3, ICCPR

[14] Rule 91, United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners

[15] Rule 93 and 94, United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners

[16] Rule 89.2, United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners

[17]  Martti Koskenniemi, “From Apology to Utopia – The structure of international legal argument”, Epilogue, 2005

[18] Rémi Bachand, “Les quatres strates du droit international analysées du point de vue des subalternes”, Revue Québécoise du droit international, 2011.

The geographical placement of detention houses: why community-integration matters

While Norwegians urbanize towards the big cities, Norwegian prisons migrate out. Prisons are no longer welcome as part of our city plans. In the last decade, the Government has shut down existing small-scale prisons. These prisons have been replaced by new large-scale prisons, in secluded locations. Why are we seeing this trend towards building new large-scale prisons in rural contexts?

We have clearly witnessed this development over the last decade. The latest example of this trend is the brand new Agder fengsel: Norway’s largest high-security prison, which opened in 2020. Agder fengsel consists of two departments, including Froland fengsel (200 prison places) and Mandal fengsel (100 prison places). Located in the forests and at the outskirts of industrial parks, these facilities remain closed and unavailable to the public. This is at odds with key principles of Norwegian prison policy, such as the proximity principle.

“The proximity principle is an important principle for the correctional services which entails that prisoners should serve their sentence as close to where they live as possible. Keeping close contact with family and friends is important during imprisonment, but also in a rehabilitation perspective. Imprisonment near the prisoners’ home is also of great importance for keeping family ties, especially for children with a parent in prison.”Hanne Hamsund (managing director), The Organisation for Families and Friends of Prisoners (FFP)


For many, the rural placement of Agder fengsel equals long distances and impractical travel routes, which can make it inconvenient and difficult to visit. This inconvenience affects important contact with personal relationships like family and friends. Another consequence is a lack of access to existing networks and services outside of the prison walls for the incarcerated person. Ultimately, leading to the loss of touch with normal life. This form of disconnected imprisonment can increase the level of institutionalization and erect barriers for reintegrating back into society after being released.

The Norwegian correctional service is based on the ideology of rehabilitation, and the principle that prisons should serve as institutions for change and personal development. The people in detention should be able establish a future from behind the walls, so that when they are released, they already have a home to return to, a positive and reliable network, as well as an education or career path to pursue. All in all, incarcerated people should be able to build a strong foundation while in detention that can enable a safe return to their home environment.

Rehabilitation is the expected outcome for the people detained in Agder fengsel. However, if we want them to rehabilitate and successfully reintegrate back into society, we must provide them with the grounds to do so. These grounds can be found in the community. Therefore, we must stop building large, introverted and disconnected institutions. Institutions that become displaced and forgotten.

Instead, we need to re-value and build accessible detention houses that are embedded as part of our urban communities. Socially integrated detention houses with an opportunity to participate and give back to its neighbourhood.

Let us also remember what purpose prisons serve in our society. When prisons are physically removed from society, they fail to convey their message to society, that is to remind us that there is a consequence to crime, which brings about a general deterrence effect, but also that there is a shared responsibility for the successful reintegration of people who have spent some time in detention.


Large facilities deviate from the highly valued proximity principle. A principle sought to be implemented by the Norwegian correctional service. By doing so, we physically disconnected ourselves from prisons. However, to what end? And, more importantly, what are the effects of doing so?

RESCALED proposes an alternative that supports the principles of proximity, rehabilitation and reintegration, all key to Norwegian prison policy. In sight and in mind.


Think small

On the 29th of July, the Norwegian Minister of Justice officially opened the new Agder fengsel, Avdeling Mandal. When Avdeling Froland opens in the end of August, Agder fengsel will become Norway’s largest high-security prison with an overall capacity of 300 new places. 200 in Froland and 100 in Mandal. Both consist of brand new buildings, with a total cost of approximately 1.2 billion NOK.

In the media, the prison has been referred to as the new ‘superprison’[1] and ‘a model for the future of the correctional services[2]’. The Minister of Justice has argued that ‘this has to become Norway’s best prison’, while the prison governor himself has gone as far as claiming that Agder has the potential to become the best prison in the world[3].

The core of Agder is punishment combined with rehabilitation. This means that the inmates will buy and cook their own food, clean, run the shop and enrol for education. They will also have access to a digital self-service system. Through this, the inmates can stay in contact with friends and family, communicate with service providers and staff, and keep an overview of their schedule, finances and belongings. The intention is to start the teaching of everyday skills earlier in the sentence, and to prepare inmates for release into a digital society.

Agder does indeed represent a modernisation of the correctional services, both building-wise and practice-wise. Many of today’s prisons are old and were originally built in a different time for a different purpose. Yet, there are several implications to this new and technologically innovative prison, as well as to portraying this as a ‘model for the future’. One of them is how the operation of this prison will look like in practice.

Over the last few years, the Norwegian correctional service has come to face annual budget cuts and a drive to maximise efficiencies. The new political order has become to build larger. We are closing down the smaller prisons and invest in the building, renovation and expansion of larger units. This priority combined with massive cuts has left little money for the operational running, which means low staffing, more isolation, and less time for activities and rehabilitation. As a consequence, ‘the model for the future’ might just turn into large buildings for temporary containment of inmates, rather than institutions for change and personal development.

In contemporary society, rehabilitation has come to be seen as the responsibility of the individual. This also seems to be the rationale behind the approach to rehabilitation in Agder fengsel. Although all people need to be motivated in order to drastically change their lives, there is good reason to believe that positive change is affected by the environment. Research on Norwegian prison size has found important results in this regard[4]:

  • While generally felt respected and cared for in small units, inmates in larger institutions more often felt a lack of individual care and concern.
  • The visibility of management in small units allows more instant decision-making, reducing the tension, stress and frustration linked to waiting for answers.
  • Small units are more often located closer to the inmates’ homes, making it easier for them to stay connected to their community and arrange visits from family and friends.

These factors are key in the process of rehabilitation and reintegration, as they allow inmates to focus on themselves rather than external disturbances.

An important argument which emerges out of these findings is the impact of staff/inmate relationships on the process of rehabilitation and reintegration. In large units, one may assume that these relationships get affected by the system, rules, regulations, and unpredictability. Control may consequently become more formalised. Static security could play a greater role than dynamic security, as inmates and staff tend to not get to know each other on a personal level to the same extent as what is possible in smaller units. Formalised relationships may prevent the staff from picking up on abnormal behaviour or problems faced by the inmate before it is too late. In smaller units, it appears to be the other way around[5]. Our humanistic principles seem easier to put into practice in small prisons for this exact reason. As the staff and inmates develop a personal relationship, inmates can more easily be met with respect, trust, dignity and understanding.

We know that inmates struggle with a wide variety of problems upon entry[6]. Some need someone to talk to, while others are at rock bottom. There are reasons to believe that rehabilitation through responsibility for daily tasks fit the needs and functional level of some, but far from everyone. Inmates constitute a complex group, and their wide spectrum of issues, needs, backgrounds, history and functional level has to be taken into account for rehabilitation to be effective. One may assume that this becomes difficult to manage in large units, where you only become one of many.

These factors imply that it is easier to facilitate good rehabilitation and reintegration in smaller and differentiated units. It allows for closer relationships and closer follow-up. It allows informal interaction, flexibility and discretion. It allows you to work on the problems you have, not the ones you should have. It allows you to be a person, and not an ‘inmate’ or an ‘officer’.

Yet, we build larger. Crime and punishment cost society an enormous amount of money. In a time where money is tight, it is easy to resort to short-term solutions. However, to invest in good correctional service and ‘punishment that works’ is good economics. A report prepared by Vista Analyse in 2014 concluded that it would save the society between 15 and 21 million NOK over 20 years if only one person returned to society as a law-abiding and tax-paying citizen[7]. And these are only the financial costs. A successful return will also ease pain and suffering on all parts involved in a criminal act. Last, but not least – for every person who returns to a law-abiding life, we will have at least one less victim. That in itself should be a good enough reason to invest in good correctional service, and differentiated imprisonment in detention houses.

[4] Johnsen, B., Granheim, P.K. and Helgesen, J. (2011). Exceptional prison conditions and the quality of prison life: Prison size and prison culture in Norwegian closed prisons. European Journal of Criminology. 8(6), 515-529; Johnsen, B, Granheim, PK (2011) Prison size and the quality of life in Norwegian closed prisons in late modernity. In: Ugelvik, T, Dullum, J (eds) Penal Exceptionalism? Nordic Prison Policy and Practice. London: Routledge.
[5] ibid.