From Island Prisons to Dementia Villages - A Brave Kind of Kindness

UK prisons seem to be increasingly inhumane in their treatment of prisoners. In the UK, 21,000 of our 85,000 prisoners class themselves as living in overcrowded conditions. Some of the effects of this are seen most dramatically in the incidences of mental health problems across prisoners; with suicide in prisons rising by 38% on the previous year and self-harm having risen to 40,161 incidents for the 2016 period. Despite the horrific conditions prisoners are subject to, 44% of prisoners released in the 2017 period reoffended within 12 months. As well as being inhumane it is evident that this is an ineffective way of rehabilitating people.

According to Governor Nilsen, of Bastoy Prison in Norway, the reason for these reconviction rates has a clear answer. We do not treat our prisoners as people. He believes that the ‘punishment [should be] that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here [in Nilsen’s prison] we pay attention to you as human beings.’ Bastoy is no normal prison: a prison island just off the coast of Norway, houses some of Norway’s prisoners with the most dangerous and violent pasts. Despite this, the island’s inhabitants live relatively civilian lives. Prisoners are given the responsibility of providing for themselves. Most, if not all, have jobs on the island – ranging from boat drivers, to farmers, to mechanics, to shop workers. These roles ensure the island keeps ticking. With the money that the inmates earn from working on the island, they are able to purchase food from the shop, which is stocked by produce grown on the island, save for life on the outside, and even purchase bikes to get around the island.

Can you imagine treating prisoners in the UK with such kindness? What the Bastoy model recognizes is that its inmates are people, with a desire to integrate into society, and are not defined by the prison context they find themselves in. On the island, rehabilitation is central to the prisoners’ experience. The result? Bastoy’s reoffending rates are 14%. I’ll say it again the UK’s are 44%. The Bastoy model is brave kindness.

Take another example which speaks volumes to a similar strain of bravery. The town of Weesp, in Holland, plays host to a very unusual village. The village Hogeweyk was founded with a special kind of kindness in mind. Hogeweyk is stuck in the 1950s, paused in time, for the sake of its residents. The village’s residents all live with dementia. Residents are free to roam around the village, attend to their daily lives by going to the local supermarket, have a coffee in the local café, and generally walk around the village doing their own thing. This is all whilst being helped by the 250 ‘local shop workers’ and ‘village residents’, who are all fully trained geriatric nurses and specialists. Having opened in 2009, over its nine years the village has yielded amazing results for its inhabitants. According to its staff, after a few weeks at the village residents improve dramatically, requiring less medication and generally appearing calmer.

The link between these approaches is that residents on Bastoy and in Hogeweyk are treated as people who have the potential to still live their lives. This, I feel, is something which is intrinsically recognized in coproduction. When we start to see people as a sum of all their experience, as people, and not by the context they find themselves in, be that a prison, a dementia care home, any social care, or health care setting, then that is where people can flourish. Coproduction recognizes this at its heart. In the coproduction process we allow for people to contribute and feed into the process using all of their life experience. We view people not just as ‘patients’, ‘service users’ or ‘customers’. We view them as people. I whole heartedly believe this is how we get the best services for our citizens. I also believe this to be a brave kind of kindness.

Brendan Warner-Southwell, Programme Co-ordinator


Emma Ward