Law and order
Today we can find all kinds of prisons world-wide. In Norway, prisoners are treated exceptionally well compared with many other countries. Most prisoners have their own cell, with a bathroom, TV and often even with a computer in his or her cell. They have access to work, school, health-care and exercise. Compared with other countries and other times this seems to be a relatively decent way to spend your time in prison. Still, the basic principle is at work in our modern prisons - you are locked up, and can’t get out.
Anette Friis Pedersen
In our society we close the doors behind people when we believe to have just cause for it. All societies define certain actions to be illegal, and when society’s norms and regulations are broken, we face the sanctions. Since the second half of the 16th century, citizens of Denmark and Norway have had the possibility of being convicted to penitentiary work and a life in irons. Enlightened philosophers of the 18th and 19th century started to use the term “contract with society”. As a member of society you were subject to this contract. If you broke the contract, by braking the laws of society, you had given up your rights in society as well. Some kind of punishment would be the consequence. During the Middle Ages, society’s justice did as a rule not include prison or penitentiary work. People were some times locked up, but that was not regarded as a punishment per se. Murder, grand theft or crimes against the king could result in a death penalty. Punishment on the body was common. A person could get his hand cut off, be branded or be given a beating of some kind. Many people were fined for their crimes. Sexual crimes were severely punished. If a woman was caught having sex outside of wedlock, it was considered desecration of another man’s property. The lover would have to pay fines to the husband. Rape, however, was a graver crime, and the punishment was execution. An attempted rape was punished with big fines. As the church’s position became increasingly powerful, different sexual behaviours were criminalized. These behaviours could be homosexuality between men, prostitution, sodomy or incest. Homosexuality between women was hardly a topic, and was not counted among the sexual crimes. But the prostitutes found themselves in an increasingly criminalized profession. Having few other means of income, many women ended up punished and put away in reformatory institutions. Also women who had been proved to have sex outside of wedlock would end up in such institutions – in Bergen that was likely to be the Reformatory House. Children who were born by these women, usually died as infants. In the 17th century, fort slaveries, bridewells and reformatory institutions started to appear. Why were these institutions built, or even invented? One answer to this question is the birth of the vagabond. In the 16th century Europe experienced a big population increase. Epidemic diseases as well as poverty and insufficient food had kept the population down. During the 16th century food production started to increase by aid of new agricultural methods. People got access to more food, the general health improved and the epidemics went back. A lot of people became superfluous in their homesteads, and were unable to find work. This is, very simplified, how the vagabond was born, and he was born to a life in poverty. One way of controlling these poor people was to lock them up and put them into productive work. England and Netherlands were the first to introduce the reformatory houses – other countries followed their examples. When vagabonds started to populate Denmark-Norway the king’s response was to start a ”slavery” in Copenhagen. King Fredrik II needed workers at his wharf, and in 1566 he asked his local officers to send 100 vagabonds to Bremerholm in Copenhagen. Today, the remains of the wharf is a street name in central Copenhagen. In it’s time, Bremerholm was synonymous with the country’s most feared penitentiary institution. Killers and repeated criminals were sent there to do hard and dangerous work. We don’t know the mortality rate among the slaves at Bremerholm from it’s starting point to the final year 1739. We can assume that it was high. An important work performed by the slaves in Bremerholm, was their participation in building Christianshavn of mud from the bottom of the sea. A clever mind had constructed a mud machine, which was a floating mechanical device with a running wheel. The running wheel (with prisoners running in it) provided the digging mechanism with power. Christianshavn, which previously was a marsh area, was built with the mud from the bottom of the sea. Many slaves lost their lives while building this new part of Copenhagen. In 1739 the king decided that local forts should keep their own slaveries. Now prisoners from Western Norway were sent to Bergenhus Fort and Castle. Towards the turn of the century, the prison time for some crimes became shorter and the number of life sentences became fewer. While fewer were convicted to life imprisonment, more people became habitual offenders, and repeatedly found their ways to reformatory houses and fort slaveries. In the 19th century, the perception among many people working within the penitentiary system was that the stay in the institutions more often than not was a “school in crime”. These people wanted to reform the Norwegian prison system after American model. Philadelphia had built a new, modern prison, which was clean and sterile. Inmates had single cells, with toilet and running water. In complete silence the criminals were to reflect upon their actions, to find God and to repent. At Bergenhus Fort’s slavery, prisoners slept and worked together 24 hours a day, and older criminals bragged about their crimes to the young, who were fast learners. The reformers found Philadephia’s silent prison a lot better, where neither guards nor other inmates could talk to the prisoner. Even though costs would be high during the construction phase, the prison would be low-cost in use: The prison was constructed as an octopus, and a few guards could watch the whole prison from the octopus’ body. New legislation in 1857 turned prison practise around in Norway. New prisons were built all over the country. Most prisons were small, a few of them were bigger. Only the penitentiary prison in Oslo was really big, by Norwegian standards. The hardest criminals in Norway were sent to Oslo. We know little about the extent of practising silence and isolation in the prisons. We can imagine that such a practice may have been difficult to see through most places. The prison reformers had acknowledged the need for cleanliness and space for the prisoners. They had also realized that prisoners needed help and guidance to meet the outside reality. The prison system is still under development. Today company and conversation is, for the most part, considered a good thing. However, many prisoners spend their days alone inside their cells, with only one hour of air and company. Many of these are prisoners in custody, who often remain in this situation without a verdict for month after month. Bergen prison is talked about among prisoners as maybe the country’s most humane and modern prison. Prisoner from all over the country ask to be transferred to Bergen, where inmates generally coexist peacefully. Also inmates and prison guards talk and joke on a friendly basis, leaving the prison safe for all parties. Even here alert measures are extremely high in the strict unit of the prison, where suicide or violence is likely to occur.