The world’s four most unusual prisons

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Nelson Mandela

 Every year that our planet circles around the sun, we discover and learn such incredible things. Each second, our planet earth is evolving and growing in ways that we may never truly understand. Brilliant inventors and gifted human beings innovate breathtaking ideas and creations each and every day. Humanity is becoming more and more accepting, aware and informed on how to save, help, accept, create and inspire to make our world a better place. But good is not always a symptom for bad. We live in a world with large amounts of hatred, evil, and despicable crime. Hate speech, murder, assault, bullying, exclusion and discrimination are some of many things which our race unfortunately deals with. And more than often, victims of these heinous crimes are likely to repeat them. Half of the world’s prison population being approximately nine million people, is held in the US, China or Russia. Known for their severe incarceration rates, the US are the world’s highest, at 724 American citizens per 100,000 which are in prison. The smallest rate of imprisonment lies in San Marino, one of the world’s smallest countries which resides in Europe. Their total of inmates are of two people. It’s very apparent that each country has many different tactics when it comes to dealing with criminals, but what are they? Why are some countries so criminally populated, and others not? As you read along, we shall explore four innovative penitentiaries across the globe to get a better understanding on their shocking tactics to help diminish crime as much as possible.  

Prison 1 – Halden Prison, located in Halden, Norway

 Described as “the most humane prison in the world”, Halden Prison doesn’t sound too bad to me. Despite being maximum security, the grounds of this penitentiary have been described as modern, cheerful, safe and overall quite pleasant by many inmates, staff, and reporters which have spent time there. A bit over one million dollars have been spent to decorate the prison with exquisite art, photography and lighting which is displayed everywhere through the place to bring happy and inspirational vibes to the inmates. Holden’s goal is to help rehabilitate their convicted rapists, murderers and kidnappers during their stay so once they’re released to the world, they will know how to live a successful life out of crime. The maximum sentence given in Norway is 21 years no matter what crime has been committed, so many inmates are motivated to become better people because they know that they aren’t spending life in prison. This tactic seems to be working quite well, considering Norway’s prison population is a mere 3,874, ranking them the 129th spot in the global imprisonment scale of 223 countries. As the Norwegian Correctional Service like to say, “better out than in”.

 To help the inmates adjust to society better when let out, the prison offers daily cooking lessons and lets them prepare their own wholesome meals. Meal time is always spent together, with the inmates as well as the guards. The guards spent a large chunk of their work day with the inmates. They are encouraged to participate in games, sports, conversations and most daily activities with the inmates as this creates bonds and trust between guard and inmate. The guard’s official job description says they must motivate the inmate “So that his sentence is as meaningful, enlightening and rehabilitating as possible”. Although I cannot seem to stop using the word “inmate” for this situation, that word has no meaning at Halden. Instead of inmates or prisoners, they are referred to as pupils. There is a strong sense of equality and trust in this penitentiary, which is Norway’s key technique when it comes to crime.

 Another interesting aspect of this prison is how much fun and learning the inmates seem to be having there. The establishment features a professional recording studio with music teachers so that inmates that take an interest can find a new hobby, and produce some music. The studio has some of the most professional and hi-tech music making software there is. Inmates and even guards are encouraged to further their musical talents, and there has even been an album made by various members of the prison. The kitchen is always open for any aspiring chefs to try out a new recipe, since all inmates must cook their own meals. Despite housing many of Norway’s most notorious killers, everyone is allowed to freely use the cooking utensils, such as very sharp knives and forks, and even scissors. They also have full access to a large variety of even sharper tools during woodworking and construction seminars. Sitting around in jail for years on end can really gain you a couple pounds, so they have a large gym with lots of exercise equipment, and even a basket ball court. If you happen to be more into nature, the prison itself is actually surrounded by the “blueberry woods”, a Norwegian type of majestical forest. It consists of blue-­black spruces, slender Scotch pines and silver-­skinned birch trees which grow over a thick layer of blueberry bushes. These beautiful trees hover over the prison, and create a beautiful ecosystem which is very healing and therapeutic to everyone in the surrounding area. “Nature is a rehabilitation thing now,” said Gudrun Molden, an architect of the prison, to the New York Times in an interview. The forest provides a lovely place for inmates to take a walk or jog, sit and play cards with a friend, read a book or to do some art. Getting fresh air and exercise can help the inmates release any tension or stress going on, and make them overall happier and calmer people. Something else which the administration believes to keep the tension down is that the majority of their guards are female. Apparently, since this is a male only penitentiary, having female guards helps make it a positive and peaceful environment for the inmates. Officials have said that the male inmates often refrain from picking fights with guards since they are of the opposite gender, and they feel like it would be disrespectful to bother a female. This is one of the many reasons as to why there are barely any fights at all at Halden.

  With all their fancy decor, state of the art technology, and overall quality that this prison has to offer, you’d think that they must be in some serious debt. But since Norway’s incarceration rate is fairly low, the costs remain very manageable. It has been said that if the United States jailed their citizens at the same rate as Norway (which approximated is 75 per 100,000 residents, compared to the U.S.’s roughly 700 citizens per 100,000) they could easily save at minimum $45 billion a year. According to a survey done by the Vera Institute of Justice, the average U.S. taxpayer pays $31,286 a year per inmate, as of 2012. The study which was conducted among 40 states, approximates the country’s prison costs at $39 billion annually. Although it may be smaller, Norway is definitely winning in the money category. It is no secret that the U.S. is and has been in debt for a while now. Perhaps the rest of world needs to take a try at Halden’s uber liberal policies, since they seem to be the most humane and successful ones.

Prison 2 – Maricopa County Jail, located in Phoenix Arizona, United States of America

 Comparing this prison to the one in Norway makes it look like an absolute hell on earth, ran by the devil himself. Known as “America’s toughest sheriff”, Maricopa County Sheriff and warden Joe Arpaio is not someone to mess with. Arpaio has somehow managed to be the longest serving elected sheriff ever in Maricopa County, after being voted in on six different elections. His methods are strict, tough, inhumane and quite crazy, but to him that’s how it must be done. After comparing the prison, in Sheriff Arpaio’s words, to “a concentration camp”, you would think that criminals in Arizona must always be thinking twice before committing a crime so they don’t end up there. This is true, considering Arizona, which is a few thousand people short of the same population rate of Tennessee, has shockingly less crime in their state. An approximate scale of the annual violent crime rates by state shows Arizona to be ranked #16, compared to Tennessee being #3. If these statistics are true, it seems like Joe Arpaio’s techniques might actually be doing some good? But what good is keeping crime rates low in your state when you’re torturing a large sum of human beings to do so.

 Maricopa County, a small county located in Phoenix Arizona,  has six different incarceration sites, with all of them seeming to be averagely common prisons which run as you would imagine a prison would. With the exception of one of course; Tent City. Created by the notorious Joe Arpaio in 1993, this 7 acre piece of land holds a maximum of 2,176 inmates in a lovely outdoor setting. These minimum to medium sentenced male only convicts who are almost all awaiting their trials get to go camping every day of their sentence in the hot days and cold nights of Arizona. But this isn’t your usual state park campground. All inmates are housed in your typical korean war inspired, military-esque olive green canvas tents. Arpaio, who will go through any lengths to save a penny, decided to use tents as housing instead of actual buildings because he thought it would save the country a whole lot of money. The tents are unheated during the winter and uncooled in the summer, which sounds quite unpleasant if you look at the typical weather Arizona has to offer day and night. The warmest it’s been at tent city was in 2011, a whopping 145 degrees fahrenheit, nearly 30 degrees over their usual. When asked about what he was planning on doing with his roasting inmates by a reporter, Sheriff Arpaio replied “What am I going to do, take them out of jail because it’s too hot?”. Despite being in the toasty warm desert, a typical night in Arizona year round can easily go below 0 degrees. In effort to warm up, inmates can wrap themselves in their designated paper thin sheets of bubblegum pink fabric that they call blankets. Yet another genius idea from Arpaio, the inmates are properly equipped with a full array of pink coloured apparel varying from their uniforms, underwear, bedding, towels, and whatever kind of “decor” they have in effort to try and “humiliate them”. Another great quote from our beloved sheriff, “why give them a color they like?” since people still believe in the gender stereotype that men are all repulsed by the colour pink. I doubt it really bothers too many inmates, considering they have much worse things to worry about such as being in prison and living in tents.

 If anyone in Maricopa County thinks that they’re getting a chance to sit back, relax, and do nothing for their prison sentence, they’re wrong. Each inmate has a designated job such as food factory, housecleaning, training, equipment services, and election balloting. Everyone is forced to participate in hard labor each and everyday in the sweltering heat. And while doing so, they are constantly being peered at and viewed. Tent City is one of Arizona’s most popular tourist destinations, believe it or not! Tours of the grounds are offered daily to the public, which take groups all around the prison (in safe areas barriered off with fences and heavily armed guards of course) to get a taste of prison themselves. They even have a gift shop selling replicas of the beloved pink t-shirts which inmates wear to make a bit of extra profit. Not only is this a popular site for tourists, but the media as well. News teams and reporters are continuously standing outside the prison in order to crack something out of Arpaio, who seems to be a loose cannon especially when he does something controversial. His string of accusations include racism towards latino inmates, human abuse (an obvious one), his strong views on illegal immigration and many more shady things. Many people support him and many do not, but it’s safe to say that his inmates would probably hold a grudge against him for a while. It makes sense that such a controversial place would be ran by such a controversial man.

Very recently, Sheriff Arpaio lost his bid to run his seventh term in Arizona due to the latino voters of the state being fed up with his antics. This means that the sheriff duties and job of being the warden at tent city shall be given to someone else in the near future. Whether the next person assigned at the job will continue tent city or rebuild an actual prison is unknown so far, but I am certain that many inmates in Arizona are quite excited. A large sum of the population in Maricopa County hope that they can bring back a bit more kindness and civilness to their location, now that they’ve finally rid themselves of the proclaimed “Donald Trump of Arizona”.

Prison 3 – Aranjuez Prison, located in Aranjuez, Spain

One of the biggest woes of going to prison for many people around the world is leaving behind their children. Many parents have no significant other or family members to take care of their children so they end up alone or in foster care. Others leave them with a suitable guardian they do know that more often than not are probably worse for the child. In the United States, an estimated 809,800 inmates of the total 1,518,535 held in the country’s prisons in 2007 were parents of minor children, or children under the age of 18. Research has shown that most children who have parents involved with crime end up committing felonies themselves. In case you didn’t know, the average person does not allow inmates to keep their children with them. It makes sense considering the average person in prison is considered dangerous, and not suitable to be around small children. But there is an exception. Aranjuez Prison in Aranjuez, Spain contains 36 cell units for families with children under age three to reside in with their parents. Once the child turns three, they are taken away from their incarcerated parent(s) and returned to relatives (if there are any) or social services. The spacious cells contain cribs, toys, a double bed for the parents, a small bathroom and windows facing the outside of the prison. There is an outdoor playground for the children to play on, and doctors who come twice a week to visit each child and parent to assure everything is alright. With such luxuries, you would think that any inmate in Spain, let alone the rest of the world, would give almost anything to be there.

Every inmate wakes up at dawn for roll call and goes back to their cells at dusk. Except at Aranjuez, they have children with them. When an inmate decides to apply at this prison, they are observed over a two month observation period to prove that they’re suitable to live together and raise a child. Sex offenders are not eligible for the program. Once proven, they go to court to finalize the deal. Being the only prison in the world like this, it has a lot of mixed reviews. Many psychologists and pediatricians think that children should not be in jail, no matter the circumstances. The first three years of a child’s life are said to be when they learn and change the most, so many experts are concerned that they will be impacted negatively in the long term. Others find it crucial for the child to establish a bond with it’s parents at such a young age, and think it helps the parents as well. But even the incarcerated parents know it isn’t the ideal place to raise a child. But it beats being separated from your child. Often, parents will get so accustomed to their comfortable lifestyle in the prison that once their three years are up, they’ll try to get pregnant again just to stay at Aranjuez as long as possible. It isn’t easy to leave such a comfortable environment, especially once they get used to having their children and significant other surrounding them daily.


Prison 4 – San Pedro prison, located in La Paz, Bolivia

Usually, when someone is sent to prison it is because they’ve done something proving them incapable of being in a community. Prison is a place for people to be kept away from society, being often left alone or with very little interaction with others. San Pedro prison or El penal de San Pedro in spanish, is located in La Paz, Bolivia. A few police officers guard the outside of the prison, but inside it is completely ran by inmates and populated by over 1,500 male criminals.

This prison is ran quite similarly as a small town or city would in our society. Leaders, guards and people of importance are voted in by inmates. Their entire community runs on our world’s most important thing; money. You pay for your cell, food, personal belongings and basically everything you’d need to survive. There are of course jobs to be had, like in any place, to earn money so that you can survive. Some of the jobs they offer are grocery or food stall clerk, hairdresser, laundry, carpenter, shoe-shiner, real estate agent and TV and radio repairman. A job is essential in San Pedro if you aren’t wealthy, since housing in the prison varies from $20 – $5,000. Some inmates also have children and their wives who live with them on the grounds to take care of, which isn’t cheap either of course. Like in the “real world”, there are more luxurious and comfortable housings to live in if you can afford them. If you have the money, your stay here could be lovely. Another money making tactic is competitive sports. Every sector of the prison has a football team that competes in weekly tournaments, with bets of more than $20,000 a year from the wealthy inmates. This gives athletically inclined inmates a chance to make quite a lot of money by doing something they love. San Pedro is definitely a huge culture shock to learn about, especially compared to a traditional prison.

Let’s not sugar coat it. South America is very well known for their abundant production of cocaine. They have the perfect climate and resources to produce, sell and ship out millions of tons daily to drug addicted citizens all over the globe. Being the continent’s bread and butter, the many jobs needed in the drug industry are employed by their residents. Children, adults, elders, and you guessed it – criminals. Keeping the best for last, San Pedro prison’s main income is from the drug trade. Approximately 80% of the inmates there are being held for drug related crimes, with most of them being addicts and users. Cocaine is produced behind the jail’s walls and sold by the prison’s dealers to other inmates and the public to feed people’s addictions and reel in the cash. Poorer inmates who cannot afford the luxury of powdered cocaine can buy “base”, the leftover residue from the manufacturization of cocaine. Despite being far cheaper, base is much more addictive and dangerous to take than regular cocaine since it contains the toxic chemicals that are cooked out of cocaine. Needless to say addicts do not care what they take as long as it fulfills their craving.

With drugs and money always comes crime and murder. Inmates have said that there is an average of 4 deaths per month due to natural causes, “accidents” and murder. San Pedro has a strict no abuse towards women or children policy, and when those rules are violated said offender is publicly murdered by a leader in the prison. Since many women and children do live with their family member in this prison, it’s a recurring thing to see conflict and violence involving them. In 2013, a 12 year old girl living in San Pedro reported her pregnancy to the authorities, which was discovered to be a result of rape from several male family members of her’s. Bolivians were outraged as they should be, and had the last straw. That year the government had issued San Pedro to close and relocate to a more safe and secure prison, yet today it still hasn’t moved since there’s no where to put these two thousand-something convicts in Bolivia. There are many pros and cons to the way this prison works, and it definitely adds to the list of most interesting penitentiaries around the world.

These four prisons all have one thing in common; they’re completely unorthodox. But in a state of severe criminalization, desperate times call for desperate measures. I think it’s interesting how even though each prison uses extreme techniques to discipline their inmates, they are all polar opposites. Halden uses an understanding and humane approach, where as Maricopa County is brutal and quite torturous towards their people. Aranjuez gives inmates an extra luxury and San Pedro’s inmates are loose and in charge themselves. It shows how different our world copes with crime and deals with it, humane or harsh. Some places have more money and can afford nicer penitentiaries and better treatments, where as others who are poorer suffer. My research and what I’ve learned has definitely broadened my horizons on different prisons around the world and how they work. And that if I ever go to jail, I’d hope that it’s in Norway.


References –