Santa Claus Lives in Prison

On Thursday, January 19th, our class hopped on a bus to Halden, one of Norway’s newest prisons. This was one of the most highly anticipated visits on our schedule. Many of the students, myself included, have visited prisons in the US, and we were eager to compare differences between the two. I had read about Halden prison before coming on the trip, and I knew that there was a large focus on rehabilitation, but I was not emotionally prepared for Halden’s reality.

When we first arrived at Halden, it seemed like a typical prison. The staff asked us to go through a metal detector and leave our phones. The Governor and Deputy Governor of Halden met us inside and gave a brief presentation on the prison, during which the differences between this prison and those of the US became obvious. For instance, the governor emphasized the Norwegian “principle of normality,” which requires that Norwegian prisons be as similar to outside life as possible. As we toured the prison, we saw this principle in action. For instance, the prison is designed so that inmates can walk within an “on-prison” forest on the way to work or school. In addition to a natural setting, all prisoners live in community with one another, as they would in the real world. Ten to twelve prisoners live in a hallway and dine together each day in a common living space littered with couches and Xbox controllers. Some might compare the units to a nicer version of a Luther College residence hall.

As the prison has a heavy focus on rehabilitation, Halden offers the prisoners many growth opportunities, some of which include certificates in carpentry, auto-work, cooking, and metal-working. Not only does the prison offer job-training services, but when we toured, we saw prisoners participating in workout classes, photography, and, last but not least, a record studio.

When we visited the inmate recording studio titled “Criminal Records,” the reality of the prison sank in for many. This studio is open to all inmates who wish to take classes and participate in musical events, and one inmate the Governor lovingly called “Santa Claus” showed us some of the results. The first video we saw was titled, “Maybe Santa Comes to Jail.” This video featured several inmates comically singing about the fact they have to spend Christmas in prison, hoping Santa will come. The entire group laughed along with “Santa Claus” while watching the video, but we all realized how hard it must be to joke about such a sad situation.

The second video we saw featured an inmate-written musical called “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Featuring staff and inmates, the musical follows a prisoner in an ethical dilemma, as he tries to decide what is best for his partner on the outside. Our class stood, watching the musical in disbelief. When one prisoner began singing “Hallelujah,” many people, including myself, unsuccessfully fought off tears.

To me, this musical represented everything that is wrong and right about Halden. I began to feel pain and sadness, as I imagined the prisoners’ struggles, having been plucked from their lives and families. It emphasized the fact that, before anything else, the prisoners are people like you and I, and everyone deserves love and forgiveness. But, by placing these people in prison, we are telling them they no longer deserve these things. I also felt hope, however, because Halden offers so many opportunities to people despite the fact they made mistakes, even if it is in prison; the prison cares about its people. Halden succeeds because it makes self-expression and creativity a priority; whereas, many US prisons fail because they perpetuate hate, operating solely to punish already broken people.

Our final assignment involves writing about the world we wish to see, and going into this trip, I knew I wanted to include a prison system that featured Halden-style prisons because I believed it would lead to lower recidivism rates. But, after our trip, I refuse to settle. Our trip made me so angry that prisons are viewed as a necessary reality. I now envision a system in which we do not “need” Halden. I envision a system that does not rely on prisons but relies on preventative measures such as decreased relative and absolute poverty, an education system that works for all, and increased care for those with drug addiction and mental illness. Though this future is far away, our trip has convinced me that people are worth saving, and the best way to diminish hate is with unrelenting love and support.

The entrance to Halden Prison.
Section of the wall surrounding Halden Prison.