Marianne Vollan DG Prisons Norway

Full rights citizens: the principle of normality in Norwegian prisons

// Interview: Marianne Vollan

Director General of the Norwegian Correctional Service

JT: Norway is a worldwide reference–case as far as corrections are concerned. What are the fundamental principles of Norway’s correctional system that make it so outstanding, and what do they require to be successfully maintained?

MV: I would like to start with the principle of normality. This principle has at least two aspects: one of them – and that’s very crucial for us – is that even if you have received a sentence, you are still a citizen.

What the punishment is about is the deprivation or reduction of freedom, but other rights that you have as a citizen are not taken away. That means that you have the right to vote, to organisational rights, and access to public services such as healthcare, school, and education.

The other part of the principle of normality is that life, during the execution of sentences, should be as similar as possible to life without a sentence. Therefore, when we talk about prisons, we should try to make everyday life and routines in prison, as similar to life outside, in society, as possible.

The principle of normality has two functions: first, it is a goal in itself and underlines a humane approach. Second, we sincerely believe that this approach helps us in solving our very complex task. We are here not only to enforce remand orders and sentences but also to do it in a way that can prevent recidivism.

If you just lock convicted persons in and you take away their rights, then there will be a more difficult transition to the life afterwards. Preparing them for a normal life will create safer neighbours. This is all part of our main mission and not some naive approach. We know the people we deal with, but we believe that applying the principle of normality could reduce recidivism.


Halden prison – Norway

A second important feature of the Norwegian correctional system is “the import model”. This means that prisons do not have their own staff delivering, for example clerical, medical, educational, employment, social or library services. These services are imported from the local community. For example, teachers who teach in prisons are paid and hired by the local school authorities, not the correctional service. Our role is to act as a “host” for these public services.

In my opinion, there are many benefits to the import model. It underlines the principle that inmates should have the same rights as others because they receive the services from the same provider that everybody else does. The import model also enables prison officers to focus on their primary task of motivating the inmates and balancing the control, and help function instead of doing tasks which other professions are better equipped to do.

I would also like to mention one other thing about the way we are organised, which I actually think it is a success factor for us: I am so lucky that I have both the probation service and the prison service under my directorate. This enables us to see sentences executed in prison and in society as a seamless process with the convicted person in the centre of our attention.
The prisons and the probation officers share the same vision and goals. This helps us to keep focused on what we are here for! I am fully aware that there are many ways of organising the correctional service, but there needs to be a very close cooperation between the prisons and probation officers, regardless of the organisation model.


One of the private cells at Halden prison – Norway

One other crucial success factor is competent and devoted staff: we put a lot of emphasis on giving our staff a proper training, and all prison officers are trained at the same place, The University College of Norwegian Correctional Service, in Lillestrøm.

Recruits undergo a two-year education, where the consciousness of ethics, attitudes and a humanistic approach plays a central role. Prison officers have a key role in making the inmates wanting to choose to live a life free of crime after completing their sentence.

We look upon them as “agents of change”. Compared to many other countries, we have a high ratio of staff. It is important to note that the notion of reintegration is present throughout the correctional service and that our highly qualified prison officers, workshop overseers, reintegration coordinators, probation officers etc. therefore play an important part in the reintegration process.

JT: In February 2017, an inmate in one of Norway’s high-security prisons was killed by a fellow inmate. It was the first murder of an inmate in a Norwegian prison since 1982. Assumptions of staff shortage due to budgetary constraints were on the table.
What are your comments both on this incident and on the aforementioned assumptions?

MV: Fortunately, incidents of this nature happen very rarely. It is a deeply tragic incident, and my thoughts are with the persons close to this inmate, who was killed.

Preventing violence between inmates, and violence against staff, is a topic to which we give great emphasis – how can we prevent such incidents from happening and how should the following-up be organised?  Our ambition is to prevent violent incidents, but we can never guarantee that they will not occur.
I think if you were to guarantee it – just to say it rhetorically – then, perhaps, you should put each and every inmate in single cells without the possibility of human contact. Then, again, we do not think that this will prevent recidivism, we do not think that it is a good idea at all. When it comes to this specific incident, we are still looking into every detail.

I will also give credit to the staff at the prison where the murder happened, who have done a great job in the aftermath. I went to the prison just a couple of days after the incident, and I was moved by the way they have worked it through in the prison: they have had debriefings, not only with the staff but also with the all other inmates who were present at the scene. The level of staff at the time of the killing was according to plans, but I would like to emphasize that we are still conducting investigations into what happened.

I can understand that it can be tempting for someone to use such a tragic event to point out that we have had some reductions in the budgets in the last years, but I would be reluctant to do so.

As a Director General, of course, I will never claim, that we could not have done even more if we had had more resources, and I certainly find it challenging to have these reductions in my budget every year. Having said that, I think that compared to many other countries we have a high ratio of staff:  the numbers, in 2015 on an aggregated level, show that we had 106 staff per 100 inmates.

We run a monopoly business, so we need to be challenged, to talk with others and to benchmark, to make sure that we perform our complex task in the best way possible.

JT: Presently, which challenges do you acknowledge in the Norwegian correctional service?

MV: I would say there are two major challenges: lack of prison capacity and the state of many of our prisons. We have had a lack of capacity for a long time, something which has resulted in the building up of a waiting list, a prison queue.

I know that many other countries will not accept a prison queue, but instead overcrowd their prisons. We have decided that we do not want to compromise with our standards, so we do not overcrowd. Instead, we say “OK, you have to wait your turn and come back later for serving your sentence.”

Obviously, that is not a very good solution, not for the convicted person – he or she wants to go on with their lives – and it is important that the reaction will come quite quickly after the decision.

Also for the sake of society as such, and for the victims of crimes, I would really rather see that we did not have a prison queue. The prison queue is the reason why we have rented capacity in the Netherlands. We have some very positive developments in this matter, and there are plans to build two new prisons, and two other are currently under extension.

We have also increased the use of electronic monitoring (EM), which means that the sentence is executed at home, but under a strict regime with a close following up from the correctional service. The reoffending rate after EM is very low. We hope that the planned increase in prison capacity will match the time for leaving the Netherlands.

The prison space renting in the Netherlands is a temporary measure while we’re building capacity in Norway. When the Norwegian Parliament passed the bill enabling us to rent Norgerhaven prison, they put into the legislation that it has to end no later than five years after it started.

It is currently a three-year treaty with the possibility to prolong for two more years. Currently, we have a very short waiting list due to the “Dutch” effect.


The Halden prison jogging trail has benches and stone chessboards

Our second big challenge is that we have many old and dilapidated buildings. The last big building boom was in 1862, and even if they had a quite good building quality at that time, the prison architecture of that century does not quite match all of our current needs.

Back then, the prominent conception was that good correctional service was to place the inmates in full isolation in single cells, where they should have no possibility to communicate with each other, and instead, they should sit and pray and become better human beings by simply doing that.

Consequently, these prisons have no areas where inmates can socialize and participate in meaningful activities. The good thing about modern prisons is that they are constructed in such a manner, that inmates will have the possibility to engage in activities.

I am very pleased with this development. Thankfully, both the challenge with capacity and the challenge with old prisons will improve in the time ahead of us.

I also would mention a third aspect, a challenge to which there is no quick fix: the fact that we have experienced a major increase in foreign nationals in our prisons. Approximately one-third of our inmates are foreign nationals.

And why do I say that it is a challenge? Firstly, because of cultural and language barriers, and secondly because many of these are not to be reintegrated into Norwegian society, which is the basis of our import model and reintegration efforts.

We have implemented some measures to tackle this challenge: we have, for example, a special prison unit where foreign nationals, who are not to be returned to the Norwegian community, are incarcerated. Foreign inmates should have equal quality but a different content. Perhaps it is more important to learn some English, some practical skills, instead of learning about the Norwegian society.

One last challenge I would like to mention is that even though I am the Director-General for both the prisons and the probation offices, there are still some cultural differences internally in the organisation. This is more a continuing challenge, something we need to work with all the time.

Radicalisation in prisons has been at the top of the agenda of all international organisations in the field of corrections, and quite rightly so.

JT: Through the multilateral cooperation mechanisms, Norway plays a major role in the modernisation of correctional systems of Eastern European countries from which Romania is a well-known example.
What are the main benefits you identify of this cooperation both for the countries you cooperate with, and for the Norwegian prison service?

MV: The main idea with this cooperation is to enhance the quality in cooperating countries and to reduce disparities in Europe. The other aim is the bilateral dimension. We cooperate with several different jurisdictions, and personally, I always learn something when I talk with professionals from other countries.

We all face many of the same challenges, even if we have different traditions and different solutions. We run a monopoly business, and we have a serious mission where we sometimes use force. We need to be challenged; we need to talk with others and we need to benchmark to make sure that we perform our complex task in the best way possible.

Furthermore, I find international cooperation fruitful because when you talk about your own ideas and principles and how you think, you also get a lot of questions back. Sometimes these questions make me think: “OK, why do we actually do it this way?” I like to ask questions. People who know me say, that I do that all the time – but I think that asking questions, looking again and reflecting about how we could be even better, are important means of the learning process.

JT: Your professional activity and expertise do not simply resume to Norway since you’re involved both in European, and worldwide organisations that revolve about corrections, namely EuroPris and ICPA.
To what extent does your experience in your country and with these organisations influence your input in one another?

MV: I would like to underline two things: one of them is actually much of the same as I said before, this is a monopoly business and I learn a lot from the international cooperation in these organisations.

The other aspect is that the world is in a sense becoming smaller and smaller, causing many global issues to occur. One example is the migration question. There is a reason that one-third of the Norwegian prison population are foreign nationals.

Big changes in the world affect all of us in different ways. This – in my opinion – makes it even more important to cooperate in and with these organisations, because they bring together so many different nations. Lately, we have had many tragic and severe incidents based on radicalisation around the world.

Radicalisation in prisons has been on top of the agenda for all international organisations within the field of corrections, and quite rightly so. Even if the correctional service cannot be the one that should take the responsibility alone to combat violent extremism, we know that radicalisation is a very complex process.

We need to be aware and take our part of the responsibility. On the topic of radicalisation, I have learned a lot through international cooperation, speaking with countries that have a much broader experience in the field.

EuroPris is an organisation based on the public services in each European country – and I was so fortunate to be one of the “founding mothers”, to be part of the planning and implementing and starting, and creation of this wonderful organisation.

The organisation has a very practical approach in terms of the different workshops and the different working groups. Employees in the Norwegian Correctional Service, who have been into the different groups, tell me that it is very useful for them in their daily work.

In addition, it is also a place where you can find useful information about other members’ service and practice, with an informative website. I would say that EuroPris is a young organisation, still a child, but it is a very mature child.

ICPA is a global organisation. Even if there are differences between the correctional services inside Europe, when you talk about the entire world, the variation is clearly bigger.

As an ICPA member, you have the possibility to be part of making a difference for countries which have even more steps to go. Not only can public services be members of the association, but also individuals, private companies and NGOs. ICPA brings together academics, practitioners, the public and private sector in a very good way.

JT: What are your views on the contribution of women in leadership positions in corrections, and what can you tell us about your personal experience (as a Correctional Service DG, plus EuroPris vice-president and ICPA board member) this far?

MV: Corrections – along with many industries – still tend to be, generally and mostly, run by male professionals. Also in Norway, the correctional service traditionally has been quite male-oriented.

On the other hand, it is not that special to have female leaders in the public sector in Norway. Therefore, in my daily life, I do not think so much about it. It is more when the question is posed that it makes me reflect on it.

I think we should aim to have a balance, not only in the leader and management level but also in the staff. When it comes to the staff we are quite good: about 40% of the prison officers in Norway are women, while the staff at the probation officers consists of 67% women.

The share of female prison officers really grew in the 1980s in Norway, and we witnessed a positive change in the behaviour of inmates. The atmosphere became, in general, calmer; it had a positive impact on both the working environment and on the prison environment as a whole.

Regarding leadership positions, we still have some steps to go, in Norway. I would like to see more female leaders, especially when it comes to prison governors.


Marianne Vollan is the Director General of the Directorate of the Norwegian Correctional Service, a position she has been occupying since 2009. Prior to that, she was head of the Penal Law Section in the Norwegian Ministry of Justice. Currently, Ms. Vollan is a board member of ICPA and she’s also vice-president of EuroPris – The European Organisation of Prison and Correctional Services.

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