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 These prisons have been replaced by new large-scale prisons, in secluded locations.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.