Foreign Bodies And The Queue: Shifting Priorities In The Norwegian Correctional System

This talk was delivered to the Midwest Wisconsin Sociological Society in Chicago, April 2019.

Recently, in Norway, there was consternation over the problem of “the queue,” the long wait for convicted offenders to enter prison due to the limited capacity of correctional facilities and prohibitions on overcrowding. As time in the queue is spent beyond custodial control, public concern was expressed in growing support for the law and order rhetoric of right-leaning political elites and pundits. The situation carried implications for foreign-born persons in Norway. Today, about a third of Norway’s prison population is of foreign background—this in a country where more than 80 percent of the population has no migrant background. Norway remains highly regarded for forward-leaning penal philosophy and low rates of recidivism; however, shifts in the sociocultural and political winds could complicate its reputation. This paper examines in a preliminary way the intersections of demographics, politics, and criminal justice processes in Norway’s efforts to eliminate the queue.

Foreign bodies in this talk refers to those in Norway who are foreign-born or Norwegian-born to immigrant parents (or, more rarely, persons with four foreign-born grandparents). Norway, like much of the world, determines such matters by the method of jus sanguinis, or hereditary-based citizenship. Norway’s foreign-born population is approaching one million, 84 percent of whom are immigrants, which is considerable given an overall population of 5.3 million. Significantly, immigration has increased since the early 1990s, to 17.7% in 2019 from 4.3% of the population in 1992. I chose the phrase “foreign bodies” for the title of my talk in light of the MSS conference thematic to capture the objectification of human beings in the dynamic of coercive control—that is, as objects to be controlled for the politics sake.

Norwegian prisons are known for their progressive penology, distinguished by a focus on limiting what, in his 1958 The Society of Captives, Gresham Sykes called the “the pains of imprisonment.” The emphasis is on humane treatment of prisoners and the principle of normality, which means maintaining full citizen rights with only deprivation of or reduction in liberty as the consequence of lawbreaking, avoidance of isolation, thus diminishing the problem of prisonization and enhancing successful reentry into society, and inmate access to Norway’s wide and generous range of public services through the import model, or reliance on resources and personnel from local communities. Overcrowding is forbidden under Norwegian human rights law. This has traditionally included a prohibition on double bunking. This rule has historically meant that many offenders wait to enter prison if there is no available space. This is known as the detention queue, or, typically, just thequeue. Convicts are considered in the queue if the turnaround from conviction to prison is longer than two months. The striking feature of this situation is that they may wait in the queue for as long as 2-3 years. Depending on rate and type of sanctions, and length of prison sentences, the queue’s size is variable over time. Public opinion about the queue is shaped by perceptions of crime, evolving moral sentiments, and shifts in political attitudes.

A prison cell in Norway

Context of Research Project

I traveled to Scandinavia in the summer of 2018 to gauge the feasibility of a research project into the efficacy of the Nordic model in reducing recidivism. This was my third trip to Scandinavia, having previously spent the summers of 1989 and 2006 in Sweden and Denmark. My initial plan was to determine the degree of access to relevant authorities, experts, and data sources in Göteborg, Sweden’s second largest city, a diverse urban population of approximately 500,000 persons (about a million in the metropolitan area). As with many cities in Sweden, Göteborg is experiencing a rapid pace of cultural transformation across several areas of social life, including ethnic and religious diversity, politics, welfare, and work. The urban and changing spaces of Göteborg present real-world opportunities for scholars interested in the study of social problems and public policy. There I met with criminal justice professionals—police officers of various ranks, including forensics pioneer detective Jan Olsson. 

As things unfolded, I gained access to educational and correctional institutions around Stockholm and Oslo. With an urban population of 1.5 million (2.3 million in the metropolitan area), Stockholm is Sweden’s largest city, and the most populous city in Scandinavia. The trip to Stockholm involved meetings with researchers at the Swedish Prison and Probation Service (SPPS), or Kriminalvården, in Liljeholmen, a district in the Stockholm archipelago. There, I was briefed by a policy officer for the European Organization of Prisons and Correctional Services (EUROPRIS). In Norway, I traveled to the University College of Norwegian Correctional Service (KRUS), or Kriminalomsorgen, in Lillestrøm, northeast of Oslo, and met with experts there.

Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration

Although Norway does not have a history of racism comparable to that of the United States, racial and ethnic minorities are overrepresented in its criminal justice statistics, albeit not to the degree seen in the US. Changes in the racial and ethnic composition of its prisons reflect to some degree Europe’s changing demographic profile. As in the United States, with the emergence of globalization, changing labor market needs, and migration pressures, Europe has been growing more diverse. Nearly 18% of those living in Norway are immigrants or their close descendants. Roughly half are from non-western societies, mainly Africa, Central Asian, and the Middle East. The rest are from Australia, Europe, especially Poland and Lithuania, and the Americas. Immigrant communities in Norway are largely urbanized. Immigrants comprise one-third of the city of Oslo, accounting for most of Oslo’s population growth (Oslo is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe). As with Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, Norway is mindful of assimilation. For example, proficiency in Norwegian is required for citizenship. Nonetheless, ethnic enclaves have emerged and persist. See Susanne Søholt and Terje Wessel’s Contextualizing ethnic residential segregation in Norway: welfare, housing and integration policies (2010).

These facts are noteworthy given the insecurity migrants face in host countries and criminogenic pressures surrounding their situation. The large numbers of migrants have strained the capacity of the welfare state (a system already compromised by neoliberal devolution) to optimally deliver social services. A shortage of housing has led to indigency and overcrowding. The intersection of ethnic enclaves and split-labor market have concentrated poverty and joblessness. Labor force attachment is difficult for those with poor language skills and relative deficits in cultural and social capital. The wage differential is significant due to the skills gap (Norway is a technologically-advanced economy). Nonetheless, Norway has managed to retain comparatively low recidivism rates despite these changes. At the same time, part of managing the situation has brought reductions in newcomers through the implementation of stricter immigration rules, as well as shifts in the criminal justice process.

Norwegian Correctional Service, Lillestrøm

On Wednesday, June 27, 2018, I traveled by train from Stockholm to Oslo. The next morning, I took the train from Oslo to Lillestrøm for a meeting organized by Tore Rokkan at the Norwegian Correctional Service. The Correctional Service replaced the Prison Board (Fengselsstyret) in 2002. Located eighteen kilometers northeast of Oslo, Lillestrøm is the administrative center of Skedsmo Municipality in Akershus County. This county is home to the notorious Akershus Fortress, which for many years maintained a stable of prisoners who were leased to various business and municipal entities for cheap labor. It became known as Slaveriet, or “The Slavery,” for this reason. It has since become a museum. 

Rokkan is Associate Professor at the University of Oslo and University College of Norwegian Correctional Service, where he works in the Department of Research. In his capacity at the University College, Rokkan is associated with the Staff Academy, or KRUS. KRUS is responsible for training prison officers, as well as production of knowledge about crime control and offender rehabilitation. (It takes two years of education to be a prison guard in Norway. Among other things, recruits are trained in ethics taught from a humanist standpoint. In the United States, you are required to have at least a high school education. Some states require some college credit. But it is minimal. The training regime is typically 6-12 months.)KRUS works closely with Correctional IT services, or KITT, which is responsible for the development and implementation of IT systems in the agency, a site of rapid transformation. The goal is to develop comprehensive informational flows between all agencies in this area, coordinating units with relative operational independence. Agency independence is a feature of the Nordic administrative system. The Norwegian correctional service is governed by the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security, which also governs law enforcement and immigration control. The service is organized into a hierarchy headed by the Correctional Services Directorate (or Kriminalomsorgsdirektoratet), responsible for administrative and professional management. Until very recently, the directorate supervised five regional administrative units, which has since been replaced by topical divisions, organized by topical areas, such as women’s issues and immigration. At the local level, there are the prison and probation offices that handle offenders. Municipalities are responsible for services, training, education, and health (the 57 municipalities are being reorganized into 17). All of these services are embedded in a network that comprises the public function in charge of rehabilitating offenders, the import system. Due to considerable prison-to-prison variation, there is a desire for more across-system uniformity. And the shift in methodology away from aggregate cross-sectional study of social patterns, such as the link between inequality and crime, and towards longitudinal life-course models with a focus on within-subject change.Rokkan and I spoke about a great many things over the course of the day. But we kept coming back to the queue and immigration and their implications for Norwegian politics. 

Shift in Politics

Critical to understanding recent developments in penal philosophy and practice is the changing dynamic of the political milieux. Norway, as with other Scandinavian states, has long been noted for its social democratic tendencies. With a few short gaps, Norway was governed by the Labor Party (Arbeiderpartiet) from 1945-1981. From 1981-1997, the political pendulum swung between Labor and Conservative (Høyre)-led center-right governments. Much of the political turmoil surrounded Norway’s relation to economic regionalization, emerging awareness of the problem of climate change, and the growth in immigration. The European Economic Area is the EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway. Norway is also a party to the Schengen agreement.

A left-center government, comprised of Labor, Socialist Left, and Center parties, took over in 2005 under the centrist leadership of Jens Stoltenberg (current secretary general of NATO). Stoltenberg was prime minister when, in July 2011, rightwing terrorist Anders Breivik bombed the prime minister’s office building, killing eight, and then massacred 69 at a Labor Party youth camp on Utøya, an island forty-five kilometers from Oslo. Breivik was given a special type of sentence, containment, or preventative detention, which allows for infinite post-carceral incapacitation with five-year reviews. Stoltenberg and his coalition was damaged politically by what was seen as a massive security failure. Anundsen led the charge in undermining Stoltenberg over the Breivik affair. This came against the background of rising anxiety about crime and immigration and the associated trend in populist right sentiment. 

In 2013, four parties ranging from right to center won a total of 96 of 169 seats, well more than needed to compose a majority. While the Labor Party remained the largest party, its coalition collapsed, ending eight years of rule (2005-2013). In 2013, Stoltenberg relinquished his position to Erna Solberg, leader of the Conservative Party. Conservatives were joined by the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet) and enjoyed the support of the Liberal Party (Venstre) and Christian Democrats (Kristeleg Folkeparti). The situation underscored the Labor Party’s plight and social democracy in Norway. Amid good economic conditions with low unemployment, the right prevailed on promises of better public services, increased spending on education and public infrastructure, tax cuts, means-testing welfare recipients, and stricter immigration controls.

Despite losing seats in the 2013 election, the Progress Party has remained highly influential. Unlike the shunning of the Swedish Democrats by other parties following the recent Swedish elections, in which the populist right put on a strong showing, the Progress Party plays a significant role in shaping the policies of the rightwing coalition governing Norway. Its leader, Siv Jensen, has long voiced concerns about creeping Islamization (snikislamisering), seen, for example, in the demand to incorporate the hijab into the police uniform and providing halal food and Islamic education in prisons and schools. Over time, her voice has grown more strident on the subject. She now identifies Islam as the most significant problem confronting Europe, referencing the situation in Rosengård district in Malmö, Sweden as evidence for the problems of assimilation. Her rhetoric of creeping Islamization has given way to warnings of open Islamization. Another figure in the party is Per Sandberg, first deputy leader from 2006-2018. Along the way, he served as acting ministers of Migration and Integration and Justice, Public Security, and Immigration. His views are to the right of Jensen’s. Moreover, he has been sharply critical of the Nordic model, especially the newer penology practiced as prisons such as Halden. He has described its residents as enjoying “hotel-standard” accommodations. These views are becoming increasingly common, leading to greater popular support for the Progress Party. Another member, Anders Anundsen, played a key role in establishing Norway’s relationship with the Netherlands in the project to transnationalize the correctional function. 

Changes in Crime Control Policy

Despite the relative autonomy of Norway’s administrative agencies, which remain committed to the restorative justice model, the rightwing coalition affected crime control policy, mainly in conveying urgency in clearing out the backlog of persons entering the correctional system. The backlog had grown because of a rise in serious crime and the number of criminal convictions was complicated by Norway’s rule against overcrowding. While property crime has declined in Norway (a trend seen throughout the Western world), there has been an increase in violence and maltreatment and sexual offenses, the latter due in part to changed definition that expands the scope of sexual offense, but not entirely. The violence represents increase in gang violence, with more guns and drugs. There are more people being sentenced, but the sentences are lighter for property crimes and traffic offenses Immigrants from Central and South Americans, Eastern Europe, Middle East, and North Africa are overrepresented in crime and are perpetrating most of the serious crimes. Western Europeans and North Americans are unrepresented in criminal perpetration, as are educated immigrants. Patterns of over and underrepresentation apply across offenses.

Lengthy sentences are rare in Norway. The longest sentence allowed in Norway is 21 years (not including preventative incapacitation). The average prison sentence in Norway was 75 days in early 2000s. However, it grew to around 85 days, which, combined with rising conviction rate, enlarged the queue. The rise in crime led experts and the public to believe that this was because of a diminished capacity to mete out swift consequences for lawbreaking. The queue was believed to lie at the heart of the problem: the time between conviction and imprisonment militated against the deterrence effect. “We are experiencing more violence and more thefts,” said Cari-Hugo Lund, a Norwegian judge, in 2003. “When I hand down a sentence, invariably the person in the dock will ask when their sentence will begin. Invariably I have to reply, ‘I simply don’t know’.” Moreover, crime victims had to live with the worry that their attackers were still at large. To be sure, murderers and rapists were jailed immediately, but perpetrators of domestic violence weren’t. Eva Frivold, a lawyer in Askim, reviewed a case in which a woman badly beaten by husband was attacked again before his cell became available. For those who had to wait, anxiety and uncertainty plagued their days. (Andrew Glasse in Oslo and Olga Craig. 2003. “Sorry for the wait sir, your cell is ready now.” The Telegraph. See also John Pratt. 2008. “Scandinavian Exceptionalism in an Era of Penal Excess.” British Journal of Criminology48: 275-292.)

Authorities approached the problem of the queue in a number of ways. A constellation of strategies involved more finely differentiating risk and more deliberately distributing persons across a variety of correctional options, from drug courts associated with treatment to electronic home monitoring for traffic, drugs, and property crimes, which freed up prison space for a wider range of violent offenders. One of the more notable approaches under the new government was transnationalizing part of its correctional function, what Eugene Kantorovich calls “Gaolbalization.” (See Eugene Kantorovich’s November 19, 2012 “Prisoner Offshoring, or Gaolbalization,” in The Volokh Conspiracy. URL: At first, in 2013, Norway sought to lease space from Sweden. Norwegian Minister of Justice Anders Amundsen, a member of the Progress Party, sent a request to Sweden for prison space. The Swedish government considered establishing what it called the “Norwegian convict zone” in anticipation of a change in crime rates. However, the arrangement would have required significant legal changes and the Swedish government ultimately rejected the request. Amundsen next turned to the Netherlands. According to the Dutch prison service, the Netherlands’ prison population had (as of 2012) been falling continuously since 2008. As a consequence, Dutch prisons were suffering from chronic undercrowding. The Netherlands was already working with Belgium to address overcrowding there. Thus, Norgerhaven Prison in the Netherlands became a unit of Norway’s Ullersmo Prison. 

Under the terms of the lease, arranged for three years, starting September 2015, with a two-year option, the prison was placed under Norwegian management but employed Dutch correctional officers. The fact that two out of three inmates in the queue were foreign nationals was a particular point of concern for Anundsen. He had pursued (over the objections of the Liberal and Christian Democratic parties) a policy of aggressive deportation. This policy was extended to the arrangement with the Netherlands. About one-third of gaolbalized foreign-born convicts were deported after serving their sentence there.[i]Norway’s contract with the Netherlands expired August 31, 2018. Norway decided not to extend the lease. By then, it had slashed the queues, in part by securing allowances for limited double bunking, but also through renovation and new construction, as well as increased use of alternative strategies, such as electronic monitoring. The reoffending rate is low with electronic monitoring, but this is in part because those suitable to its use are less likely to reoffend. Norgerhaven thus afforded Norwegian prison officials time for expansion, maintenance, and retooling penal strategy. The experience with gaolbalization has been dubbed the “Dutch effect.” 


Racial and ethnic disproportionality in Norway’s prisons is explained by the shift in priorities against the backdrop of human rights law and rehabilitative approach that govern corrections in that country. In Norway, there is a progression through the system: high security first, then stepped-down progression towards liberty. Two-thirds of prisoners in the system enjoy early release if native-born. They have families, work, speak the language, and so on; they are more easily reintegrated with the community on the basis of a strong social support network and inherited cultural capital. The foreign-born do not enjoy the features of established and stable citizenship. Nor do authorities find it reasonable to devote resources towards rehabilitating those Norway plans to deport. Thus, steering toward capacity while eliminating the queue has resulted in overrepresentation of foreign bodies in prisons. The changes yielded the results it sought, perhaps most notably, the re-election of the Erna Solberg government in 2017 and the expansion of the rightwing coalition. The Liberal Party joined the coalition in 2018, followed by the Christian Democratic Party in 2019.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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