In March, Executive Director John Kamm and Development & Program Manager Daisy Yau went to Oslo where they visited Bredtveit Prison, Norway’s largest women’s prison. Originally built in 1919 as a detention center for young men, Bredtveit held people accused of treason after World War II and was converted into a women’s prison in 1957. Despite some concerns over healthcare, Bredtveit has become a model for rehabilitative corrections, implementing many of the provisions in the UN rules for the treatment of women prisoners (the Bangkok Rules).

Top: The entrance to Bredtveit Prison in Oslo, Norway.
Bottom: An incarcerated woman’s room inside Bredtveit.

One of three women’s prisons, Bredtveit has the capacity to hold 64 of Norway’s approximately 200 women prisoners. (As in China, women account for about 5 percent of Norway’s total prison population.) At the time of Dui Hua’s visit, 63 women were serving sentences in Bredtveit, including 27 for narcotics and 10 for murder. The average length of sentence was 4 years and 3 months, with the shortest being 45 days and the longest 21 years, Norway’s maximum length for unconditional sentences. Prison sentences can be conditional or indefinite in Norway under preventive detention, which creates a means of reviewing and extending prison terms in the interest of protecting society. Two women were in preventive detention at Bredtveit at the time of Dui Hua’s visit.

Pursuing Rehabilitation, not Punishment

Nearly half of the prisoners at Bredtveit are foreign citizens, and Sharon,* a 64-year-old British prisoner, likened the place to “a country club.” There are no uniforms for prisoners and no weapons for personnel. Every prisoner has her own room with a bed and desk. Personal belongings such as clothes, jewelry, CDs, and guitars are also allowed. In the high-security wing (with 46-person capacity), each of the four floors has a common area containing a kitchen, dining area, sofas, and television. To help prisoners gradually adapt to free society, women move based on individual risk and need evaluations from higher- to lower-security areas over time. In the low-security wing, women’s doors are not locked, and during the day, they can move freely throughout the facility. This is consistent with Rule 45 of the Bangkok Rules that encourages the use of open prisons.

Apartment where children and their incarcerated mothers can stay together during overnight visits.

Lampooned in the media for having “luxurious” prisons, Norway stands by its prison philosophy: to rehabilitate, not to punish. Norway emphasizes that public safety should not be defined by the number of people in high-security cells but by the rate of criminal recidivism, which is low in Norway. According to a study completed in 2007, Norway’s recidivism rate was the lowest in Scandinavia at 20 percent.

Family Contact

Women are generally allowed at least a one-hour visit and 20 minutes of phone calls per week, excluding calls to attorneys and police. In line with Rule 26, children of incarcerated mothers are granted additional visits, generally two to three per week. Counterbalancing what the rule calls “disadvantages faced by women detained in institutions located far from their homes,” one-hour visits are extended for visitors traveling long distances.

After assessing that it is safe and in the best interest of the child, children of incarcerated mothers are also allowed overnight visits. These visits can occur about once a month in an “apartment” inside the high-security wing. The apartment opens into a small backyard and has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and a small play area. This appears to more than satisfy Rule 28’s mandate for “an environment that is conducive to a positive visiting experience” and allows “open contact between mother and child.”

Spouses are welcome during overnight child visitations, but if the child does not stay overnight or if the couple does not have a child, spouses are not eligible for overnight stays or apartment visitation. This is meant to prioritize the rights of the child. Women without children may not use the apartment but may have conjugal visits, which are encouraged under Rule 27, in visitation rooms.

Like the US and China but unlike most European countries, Norway does not permit children to stay with their mothers in prison. Instead, Norway creates opportunities for mothers to stay with their children outside prison, consistent with Rule 52(3). Women who are pregnant or have young children may be able to serve sentences outside prison under paragraph 12 of Norway’s Execution of Sentences Act. The provision states that people can serve all or a part of their sentences in institutions other than prisons where it is necessary to improve their ability to function socially and lawfully or where other special circumstances exist.


Bredtveit provides “a balanced and comprehensive program of activities which take into account gender-appropriate needs” in accordance with Rule 42. These activities can be completed inside or outside prison and include treatment programs, jobs, and coursework that counts towards degrees or certificates. For example, the VINN program organizes discussion groups of five to eight women who are in prison or on probation. The groups focus on substance abuse, violence, life mastery, and other topics.

Nancy, who appeared to be in her twenties, told Dui Hua that she was satisfied with prison conditions and was particularly optimistic about PATHFINDER, a drug treatment program conducted inside Bredtveit. A singer and guitarist, Nancy was in the low-security wing for drug-related offenses. She was allowed to attend music events outside Bredtveit, sometimes involving overnight stays. Another woman in the low-security wing, Tina, sped by with her social worker during our visit. Turning an imaginary steering wheel and making the sounds of a racing motor, she was on her way to drive an all-terrain vehicle for the first time.


After its May 2011 visit to Bredtveit, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) released a report in which it expressed concern that the prison had no healthcare staff on duty during nights and weekends. CPT reported that the prison had one part-time doctor who was present only 40 percent of the time, and Bredtveit Prison Governor Hilde Lundeby said nurses are normally in the prison daily from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. CPT also stressed that medical screening should be done upon admission, and that, at Bredtveit, there were delays of several days and even weeks. Bredtveit officials told Dui Hua that round-the-clock medical care was desirable but cost prohibitive.

Two women’s personal experiences speak to the success and failure of healthcare at Bredtveit. Abigail, a 48-year-old woman in the high-security wing, expressed gratitude for prison medical care, which has led to the diagnosis and continuing treatment of her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Sharon, on the other hand, named healthcare as her biggest complaint despite overall satisfaction with prison conditions. After a botched acupuncture session meant to treat arthritis, she has suffered from acute arm pain. The physiotherapist performing the procedure left Bredtveit without removing one of the needles from the back of Sharon’s head, and when Sharon discovered it half an hour later, there was no medical staff on duty. The needle was eventually removed by custodial staff. The physiotherapist lost his job as a result of the incident.

Women have also lodged complaints for being placed in solitary confinement as punishment. At Bredtveit, solitary confinement is only to be used for preventive purposes, i.e., to protect people from other prisoners and vice versa. Prison staff said the coercive measure was rarely used and when used generally done so for one day or a maximum of two days. (In Chinese prisons, solitary confinement may be carried out for 7–15 days as a punitive measure.) Lundeby said complaints about solitary confinement had been “adequately” addressed.


Kamm (left) and Yau (right) with Bredtveit Prison Governor Lundeby (second left) and Principal Officer Storvik.

Norway’s prison personnel must complete two years of formal training at the Correctional Service of Norway Staff Academy (KRUS). Principal Officer Birgitte L. Storvik was a teacher at KRUS before joining Bredtveit. In total, Bredtveit had 84 staff members for its 64-prisoner capacity. Personnel was split nearly 50/50 between women and men, short of Norway’s prison governance principle that 60 percent of staff be the same sex as the prisoners in the facility they serve. Lundeby said there were few applicants but that she hoped to recruit more women.

Prison personnel were proud to report that a “contact officer” is designated for each prisoner. Contact officers are responsible for ensuring that incarcerated women receive information about the prison and her rights and duties; for addressing problems efficiently; for support and motivation; and for assisting in preparations (e.g., employment and social security) for life after release. Sharon said that the good relationship she had with her contact officer contributed to her positive prison experience. ■

*Pseudonyms are used to maintain anonymity of incarcerated women.

Upon leaving Bredtveit, Dui Hua staff took away the knowledge that the Bangkok Rules can and are being implemented despite limited international attention. We extend our sincerest thanks to Bredtveit Prison Governor Hilde Lundeby and Principal Officer Birgitte L. Storvik for acting as our hosts on March 1, 2012.