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Lorraine Atkinson, Senior Policy Officer at the Howard League for Penal Reform blogs about a recent visit by the Commission on Sex in Prison to Norway’s Halden Prison to learn about the Norwegian prison system’s approach to family visits.


In Norway, the family is regarded as an important resource in preventing re-offending.  Family visits are encouraged and prisoners are able to spend time alone with their partners and their children. The best interests of the child are considered, in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and fathers in prison are encouraged to maintain relationships with their children whilst serving their sentence.


The majority of sentenced men in Halden prison, Norway’s newest and second largest prison, are entitled to a private visit from a partner or friend for two hours, twice a week.  In contrast to Norway, prisoners in England and Wales are normally allowed a two-hour social visit once a fortnight, although prisoners on the basic regime entitlement have fewer visits.  Social visits are closely monitored and are never private.


In Halden, private visits take place in small, individual visiting rooms which contain a sofa, a sink and a cupboard containing clean sheets, towels and condoms. A larger, brightly decorated room is available for prisoners with families. This room has toys and baby changing facilities.  Prisoners, partners and children can spend time together in private without being constantly observed by prison staff.  Commissioners asked whether children are searched for drugs before entering the prison but were told this never happens.  However, prisoners are searched after visits and could lose their right to a private visit if found in possession of illegal drugs.


A small number of people, such as prisoners who have a high risk of violence or visitors who have committed a drugs offence within the last five years, are restricted to closed visits. There are two rooms for closed visits with a one way glass observational panel so visits can be observed by prison staff.


Halden prison has a family visits house, one of two such facilities in the Norwegian prison estate where prisoners and their families can spend 24 hours together. The house, built within the perimeter fence, is well-equipped and homely.  It has a small kitchen, two bedrooms, a bathroom and a large living room with a dining table, a sofa and a television.  There is an outside play area with toys for children.  The patio doors look out onto the garden but it is impossible to avoid the imposing prison walls in the background.


The house is a short walk from the main prison wings and prisoners staying there receive regular visits from prison staff during the 24 hour period. Use of the house is based on trust and prisoners know that if they abuse that trust they could lose the chance to spend such a long period of time alone with their children again.


The visits house is not available to all.  Foreign national prisoners with family in other countries are unable to use the family house.  To be eligible for extended family visits, prisoners have to complete a child development education programme which is only available in the Norwegian language. Fifty per cent of the prisoners at Halden prison are foreign nationals, mainly from Eastern Europe.  Most do not speak Norwegian although some have picked up the language whilst inside. One prisoner on remand spoke of his sadness at not being able to see his children in the Netherlands or even speak to them by phone. Prisoners on remand often face the most severe restrictions on family contact, imposed on them by the courts and enforced by the prison.


For the children of Norwegian prisoners, the family visits house gives them the opportunity to spend some quality time with their dad even if they are constantly reminded that their father is in prison by the ever present view of the prison walls surrounding them.


For more information on the Commission on Sex in Prison visit