Today the Bergen County Jail is an incipient ruin next door to the new Town Hall. Once it was a top modern prison with facilities still new to many citizens in Bergen. The first prisoners were jailed there in 1867, and the last prisoners moved out in 1990. Since then, the old jail building has become an overgrown ghost house.
The jail building is three stories tall, and contains 57 cells. The cells are situated along both sides of a long corridor with galleries. Originally, there were 41 cells in the jail, but an extension was constructed in 1920 to provide prison cells for women.
Several prisons were built simultaneously in Norway, as a result of new legislation based on a need to humanise, modernize and increase efficiency in the treatment of prisoners. Bergen County Jail and the other prisons in Norway built at the time were based on American ideas and experiences, mainly from Philadelphia. The principle of one inmate per cell was a radical improvement for the prisoners compared with what had been common in previous prisons, which were crowded, dark and dirty.
Even though the cell system and the fan shaped yard were inspired by and even based on the Philadelphian prison, other comparisons are unjust. The prison in Philadelphia was renowned for being extremely strict: the inmates were not allowed to talk to each other or the prison guards, they were not allowed to look at each other or to read or write. This was hardly the case in Bergen, where it is said that the atmosphere between prisoners and guards was even friendly.
A story from the great fire in 1916 illustrates this point. When large parts of the center of Bergen burned to ashes in 1916, both the prison and the fire station were in peril. The prison management saw no other solution than to let all the prisoners go. Prior to their release, however, the manager asked them to report back the next day. With one or two exceptions they all returned to the prison which had not been lost in the fire.
It is hard to see how these inmates could have been given the “Philadelphia-treatment.” Still it’s possible to trace the idea of isolation from the building itself – the cell windows are placed high up on the wall, making it very difficult to look out on the street for the prisoners.
The treatment of the prisoners probably softened considerably over time. Among other things we can see that the light shafts in front of the windows have been removed.
It has not always been possible to accommodate each prisoner his own cell. The 57 cells which met the need in 1920, did not suffice during or after the Second World War. The Gestapo took hold of the prison on 17 May 1940 and built a new floor on the west wing in 1942. In 1943 there were 44 prisoners in the Norwegian department, and 100 in the German department.
Gunvor Mowinckel was imprisoned here in 1944-45. She and her husband had been arrested after having sheltered refugees from the Norwegian resistance. Mowinckel and her husband were tortured and interrogated by the Gestapo in their headquarter before being sent to the county jail. Gunvor Mowinckel wrote in a letter:
“At a point in the Gestapo Headquarter I was asked by Kesting (Gestapo) how many children I had. When I answered this, Kesting said that the children of such a terrible individual weren’t worthy of life.
“Later that day we were transferred to Bergen County Jail. It was a horrible time. I think that the fear for the children and what was to come next, was the worst.
“Trampler, the German prison warden, was very helpful toward the prisoners. Among other things he allowed a woman attendant to find a doctor and let me have what I needed when I got sick from my full breasts. (My youngest child was only a baby when we were arrested.) Trampler turned out to be a good man for us. If I’m not mistaken, he was allowed to choose between staying in Norway or returning to Germany. It was the Norwegian authorities that gave him the choice. He went home to his family.”
The modern prison in the outskirts of Bergen opened in 1990, and inmates often talk very kindly about the new institution. Many ask to be transferred there from other Norwegian prisons. The atmosphere between inmates and staff is allegedly very special, and prisoners with experience from other prisons are usually surprised when they first experience the polite and friendly tone of language that exists at this prison. This atmosphere of politeness and friendliness is said to have been brought from Bergen County Jail.
The old prison is abandoned today. Unfortunately the old brick building has not been maintained and it looks like a commencing ruin. Its future is still undecided.