For most of us the picture of a prison is a depressing place of deprivation, punishment and penance.
But there is an island prison in Norway that is unlike any.
Bastoy prison is an hour away by ferry from Oslo. This one square mile island prison is home to 115 prisoners.
There are no high walls, iron bars or wire fences. The prisoners are free to walk around.
Some of them are murderers, rapists and drug traffickers. Yet they don’t wear shackles or electronic monitoring bracelets. Neither do they live in isolated high security cells. They live in small wooden bungalows that accommodate up to 6 people. These brightly painted cherry red houses dotted the landscape.
Every prisoner has his own room. They share a common kitchen and other facilities. Only one meal a day is provided in the dining hall. For the rest of their meals, everyone has to work and use their earnings to buy provisions from the island’s well-stocked mini-supermarket.
The working day begins at 8.30am. Some work in the farms tending to sheep, cows and chickens. Others work in the gardens growing fruits and vegetables. Still others work in the laundry or in the stables looking after the horses that pull the island’s cart transport. Quite a few work in a repair shop for bicycles, which many prisoners had bought with their own money.
In their free time, the prisoners would fish, play tennis, ski, sunbathe or swim off the beach.
When most of the prison staff leave for home, only a small handful of guards are left to watch the prisoners.
Bastoy prison started as a social experiment to rehabilitate prisoners.
“The idea is they get used to living as they will live when they are released.”
The belief is when people are treated like animals they are likely to behave like animals. “Treat people like dirt, and they will be dirt. Treat them like human beings, and they will act like human beings.”
And it seems to work.
Today Norway has the lowest rate of reoffending among released prisoners in Europe.
That treatment of prisoners transformed them from an enraged killer to a gentle farmer; from a vicious rapist to a good-natured repairman and from a violent drug dealer to a friendly ferry operator. They would say, “Before coming here I never really cared for other people.”
Treating people with respect transform them. Believing in their potential to change and trusting them to prove their worth gives them hope to start on a new page again.
It is exactly what happened to Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10.
Zacchaeus had the bad reputation of being a chief tax collector. He got rich by defrauding other taxpayers. People looked him upon as the worst of sinners. They despised him. They hated him. They treated him like dirt. They even ignored him for they didn’t even know he was there on the tree when Jesus was passing by. There is nothing more painful for any human being than to feel invisible and non-existent.
But Jesus did not condemn Zacchaeus in spite his appalling reputation. He treated Zacchaeus with respect and dignity. He called out to Zacchaeus by name and asked to stay in his home. He did not see Zacchaeus as a hopeless scumbag imprisoned by his greed and riches. Rather Jesus saw in Zacchaeus, a sinful human being with the potential to change and prove his worth.
And he did.
“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).
Zacchaeus became a completely changed man. And that is solely because of the way Jesus treated him.
Such is the transformational power of treatment.