The Norwegian response to Breivik

What should be the main purpose of imprisonment? Should it simply be to punish those who have committed a crime, in order to make them pay for their wrong-doing, through the removal of, amongst other things, their liberty? Or should it be to rehabilitate, to educate and to encourage them to think about the consequences of their behaviour, with the ultimate goal of turning them into law-abiding individuals who are ready to be re-integrated into society? Perhaps, it should be a mixture of the two?

Liam Brolan
Lecturer in Criminology

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These are some of the questions that I have been posing to my first-year, undergraduate Criminology students, during their introductory seminars. The views and opinions expressed in response to these questions varied greatly and elicited a discussion of the philosophical justifications of the use of punishment in society.

Some students were quick to adopt what they would later learn to be a retributivist standpoint. In other words, a position which would support the idea that the most important aim of imprisonment should be to ‘balance the scales’ and to ‘make the offender pay’ for the harm they have committed. Other students took a far more consequentialist stance, meaning they were less concerned with extracting ‘revenge’, or about the offender getting their ‘just desserts’ and instead were more interested in how the time spent in prison could be better used to improve the offender’s character, change their behaviour, prevent future re-offending and, ultimately, divert them away from a return to prison.  

Some students saw the benefits of the retributive approach but expressed the view that ‘everyone deserves a second chance’, suggesting that perhaps the main aims of imprisonment should be to both punish and to rehabilitate simultaneously. Interestingly, some students suggested that the extent to which an individual should be afforded the opportunity to rehabilitate whilst incarcerated rested heavily upon the type and nature of the offence they had committed, with more serious crimes, such as murder, being viewed through a less sympathetic lens.

Shortly after the seminar, I read an article, published by BBC News, entitled “Should a university teach a killer?” The article focused on the decision made by the University of Oslo to allow mass murderer, Anders Breivik, to study for a degree in Political Science whilst being incarcerated at Skien Fengsel – a maximum security correctional facility, approximately 62 miles southwest of the capital. This is a decision which seems all the more pressing, given the recent release of the Paul Greengrass movie entitled '22 July' – a film which focuses on Breivik and was released on Netflix on 10 October this year.

In 2015, the university agreed to allow Breivik to study under strict conditions, which included having the course materials delivered to him by a prison officer, no access to the internet and no contact with students or staff at the university (BBC News, 2018). This decision in particular and the Norwegian response to Breivik more generally, has divided public opinion, both in the country itself and in other places around the world, bringing the previous discussions of the purpose of imprisonment sharply back into focus.

Anders Breivik was responsible for the worst act of violence in Norway since the Second World War (The Independent, 2018). On 22 July 2011, Breivik drove into the centre of the Norwegian capital, in a van containing a bomb that he had previously built. He parked the van outside Regjeringskvartalet, lit the fuse and left the scene (The Telegraph, 2016). The subsequent explosion caused significant damage to the surrounding area, resulted in the death of eight people and injured many more.

Whilst emergency services rushed towards to site of the explosion, Breivik headed for Utøya – an island situated in the Tyrifjorden Lake, approximately 25 miles northwest. The island, which is accessible only by boat, is home to the Workers’ Youth League annual summer camp. When Breivik arrived on the shore of the island, he was dressed as a police officer and was armed with an automatic rifle and a pistol. As detailed in his manifesto – a 1,500 page document which he sent to over 1,000 recipients prior to the attack – he placed headphones into his ears and proceeded to make his way around the island, systematically shooting dead as many people as possible (BBC News, 2011). During the shooting, which lasted for more than an hour, Breivik was able to kill 69 people, many of whom were teenagers. When the Norwegian police finally arrived on the island, Breivik surrendered and made no attempt to resist his arrest.

During my own time as an undergraduate student at Birmingham City University, I was fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to participate in the annual debate at HMP Grendon – the only prison in Europe to operate entirely on a therapeutic basis. Each year, two students from the university debate a predetermined topic against two ‘residents’ from the prison.

The subject of the debate back in 2013, was whether or not the punishment given to Anders Breivik by the Norwegian criminal justice system in response to the attack was appropriate. Having murdered a total of 77 people, Breivik received the maximum penalty available under Norwegian law – he was incarcerated for 21 years, with the condition that if upon completion of his sentence he is still considered a threat to society, his detention could be extended. This decision brought into sharp relief the liberal ideology that underpins the Norwegian criminal justice system and reinforced the view that their prison system is considered to be one of the most “humane” in the world (Business Insider, 2014).

The roots of their unique approach to punishment can be traced back to the Second World War, when the country fell under the rule of Nazi Germany. During the occupation, which lasted from April 1940 to May 1945, faculty members of the University of Oslo were arrested and subsequently imprisoned by the invading German forces. Upon their eventual release, those same faculty members – who had experienced the woes of imprisonment themselves – would go on to write the Norwegian penal code that still exists today (Wilson, 2014).

As a result of this historical influence, it is rehabilitation, not retribution that is at the heart of the Norwegian criminal justice system. Whilst incarcerated, inmates have access to education, training and skill-building programmes (The Guardian, 2013).  In some prisons, such as Bastøy – an open prison which is home to approximately 115 offenders, including those who have committed murder and rape – inmates have access to tennis courts, are able visit the beach to swim and can even participate in the prison’s ski-jumping competition (PRI, 2010). In some cases, inmates may also be permitted to continue their employment, making the daily commute to and from the prison. In Halden – a maximum security prison – the interiors of the buildings and the layout of the grounds surrounding them have been designed to maintain “normalcy”. As such, there are no bars on the windows and inmates have access to their own fully equipped kitchens (Business Insider, 2014).

It is worth noting at this point, that for the majority of his sentence so far, Breivik has been kept in solitary confinement. In other words, he has been denied any contact with other inmates who are also being detained at Skien Fengsel. In 2016, as a result of what he describes as “inhumane treatment”, Breivik appealed against the “draconian” measures that he was being subjected to – an appeal which would initially be upheld by an Oslo district court. However, in March 2017, the ruling was overturned. Breivik’s most recent appeal to the European Court of Human Rights has also been rejected (The Independent, 2018).

The Norwegian approach to the implementation of punishment seeks to change an individual’s offending behaviour with the goal of preventing a re-turn to prison upon their release. Despite some critics comparing Norwegian prisons to “holiday camps”,the recidivism rate in Norway lends support to their rehabilitative approach. Indeed, the country has one of the lowest re-offending rates in the world at 20 per cent (The Business Insider, 2014). This is almost half of the re-offending rate in England and Wales, where, according to figures recently published by the Ministry of Justice, 37 per cent of offenders returned to prison within the first 12-months of their release (The Guardian, 2018). So, too, the country also has one of the lowest rates of incarceration at just 75 prisoners per 100,000 people in the general population (World Prison Brief, 2018).

In preparation for the debate at HMP Grendon, I began to research the justification behind Breivik’s punishment in more depth, all the time considering how I might begin to argue for a position, which at that time, I did not agree with – a position which would ultimately require me to argue that 21 years in prison for the murder of 77 people, was an appropriate course of action.

When the day of the debate arrived, the room was full of students, prison staff and residents of the prison – some who would be serving a life sentence for crimes including murder. I opened my speech with the words of Bjørn Magnus Ihler, who had survived the attack on Utøya Island. When asked about his views on Breivik’s punishment, Ilher responded by stating that, in his opinion, it was the sign of a “fundamentally civilised nation.” He proceeded to say that “If he [Breivik] is deemed not to be dangerous any more after 21 years, then he should be released... That’s how it should work. That’s staying true to our principles, and the best evidence that he hasn’t changed our society” (The New York Times, 2012).

At the time, I considered this to be a particularly powerful statement, especially given Ilher’s proximity to the events that had unfolded. I remember thinking that his words seemed to go against what for many would be considered a ‘common sense’ or ‘rational’ reaction for someone in his position. However, upon deeper consideration, it became clear that Ilher’s words represented an attitude which was shared by many Norwegians at the time. An attitude that would go on to form the very basis of the argument I would present. His words, I felt, encapsulated the approach that still exists in Norway to this day in relation to the way in which they treat even the worst of offenders.

Despite the fact that the decision not to amend the maximum penalty in response to Breivik’s actions caused widespread public astonishment (Wilson, 2014), the Norwegian government refused to allow the actions of one individual to undermine the values and principles upon which their criminal justice system is built. In my opinion, it is those same values and principles that underlie the decision made by the University of Oslo, in the face of fierce criticism, to allow Anders Breivik to study for a degree in Political Science. It is those same values and principles that drive the rehabilitative approach to punishment upon which Norway places a great amount of pride and which based on their recidivism rates, appears, at least to some extent, to be working. It is, I believe, those same values and principles that have resulted in a criminal justice system which reflects a “fundamentally civilised nation” and which should encourage us all to pause and reflect upon our own philosophical justifications of the use of punishment in society. For the record, despite my best efforts, I lost the debate, which perhaps reflects the mountain that has to be climbed before a similar approach to imprisonment might be adopted in this country. 

Liam Brolan
Lecturer in Criminology


BBC News (2011) “Breivik manifesto’ details chilling attack preparation’ BBC News, 24th July 2011. Available at:> (Accessed 5th October 2018).

BBC News (2016) ‘Anders Breivik: Just how cushy are Norwegian prisons?’ BBC News, 16th March 2016. Available at:> (Accessed: 4th October 2018).

Bradshaw, P. (2018) ’22 July review – Paul Greengrass’s potent Anders Breivik docudrama’ The Guardian, 4th October 2018. Available at:> (Accessed:  4th October 2018).

Doyle, A. and Fouche, G. (2018) ‘Anders Breivik: Norwegian mass murderer loses human rights appeal against prison conditions’ The Independent, 21st June 2018. Available at:> (Accessed: 4th October 2018).

Fouche, G. (2010) ‘Where convicts lead the good life’ PRI, 30th May 2010. Available at:> (Accessed: 5th October 2018).

Lewis, M. and Lyall S. (2012) ‘Norway mass killer gets the maximum: 21 years’ The New York Times, 24th August 2012. Available at:> (Accessed: 4th October 2018).

Pickles, M. (2018) ‘Should a university teach a killer?’ BBC News, 2nd October 2018. Available at:> (Accessed: 4th October 2018).

Sterbenz, C. and Engel P. (2014) ‘Take a tour of Norway’s unbelievably luxurious prison’ Business Insider, 29th October 2014. 

Wilson, D. (2014) Pain and Retribution: A Short History of British Prisons 1066 to the Present. London: Reakton Books.

World Prison Brief (2018) World Prison Brief Data: Norway. Available at:> (Accessed 5th October 2018).