Since the 1850s, Norway has used prisons for punishment. Before, people were locked up mainly for other reasons, like awaiting their punishment. Previous punishment included forced labour or corporal punishments, such as flogging, maiming or the death sentence.

A new prison model was imported from Pennsylvania, USA, including both the prison design and the ideas. The ideas have been described as a merge between a modern form of Christianity, instrumental rationality and individuality.

The idea was to achieve two contradicting aims: to punish and to improve and rehabilitate prisoners. Legislators and prison policy authorities saw imprisonment not just as an
intended evil, but also as a means to reduce crime.
In the following decades, attempts to rehabilitate prisoners took various forms, influenced by changes in society on ideas about how to reform people. These are reflected in the architecture of prisons from the 1850s through today.

During the decades, control, security and isolation have essentially not changed. Today, control takes place with new and extended techniques. In the stripped isolation cells, time has stood still. Nothing remains nothing. Prisoners are still isolated within prisons, but the exact use of solitary confinement is not known. Information about isolation has only recently been made public by the prison administration.


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Fransson, E., Giofrè, F. and Johnsen, B. (eds.) (2018). Prison, Architecture and Humans. Oslo: CappelenDamm Akademisk.

Fridhov, I.M. and Gröning, L. (2018). Penal ideology and Prison architecture. In E. Fransson, F. Giofré and B. Johnsen (eds.) Prison, Architecture and Humans. Oslo: CappelenDamm Akademisk.Hvattum, M. (2014).

Giertsen, H. (forthcoming, 2021). Prison ideas and architecture 1850-today: relevance to Norwegian prisoners and prison policy. Nordisk tidsskrift for Kriminalvidenskab, .

Hvattum, M. (2014). Heinrich Ernst Schirmer – Kosmopolittenes arkitekt [Heinrich Ernst Schirmer – architect of the Cosmopolitans]. Oslo: Pax forlag.

Kriminalomsorgen [The Norwegian Correctional Service] (2020). Kriminalomsorgen årsrapport 2019 [The Norwegian Correctional Service. Annual report 2019]. Lillestrom: Kriminalomsorgen [The Norwegian Correctional Service]. [Online]. Available at

Schaanning, E. (2007). Menneskelaboratoriet. Botsfengslets historie [The laboratory on human beings. The history of Botsfengslet]. Oslo: Scandinavian Academic Press.

Smith, P.S. (2004). A religious technology of the self. Rationality and religion in the rise of the modern penitentiary. Punishment and Society 6 (2), pp. 195-220.


Isolation & penitentiary
Oslo botsfengsel (C. Tønsberg; I Hvattum 2014)

Oslo Botsfengsel (1851-2017) is the first and main example of the isolation and penitentiary idea, inspired by prisons in Pennsylvania, USA. The Norwegian architects visited prisons built on the Philadelphia model in Great Britain, Belgium, and Germany.

Prisoners were held in total solitary confinement in the cells, with the Bible, in order to improve. Prohibited from seeing other prisoners, they wore hoods when being transported in the hallways.

Prisoners spent 23 hours in their cells and had one hour of outdoor time (lufting) in isolation that took place in small, sub-divided yards covered with chain-link. The result was disastrous. The expected results did not appear. Isolation did not reform prisoners; it broke them down. Slowly the regime was reformed, reducing the degree of isolation.

The cell wings have cells arranged around an open hall with several floors, accessed from galleries on each floor.

In the 1850s and ‘60s, 56 small prisons based on this idea were built in Norway, with a total capacity for 800 prisoners. Oslo Botsfengsel was the largest one with a capacity of 240 prisoners. One of the small prisons was built in Hamar.

Hamar prison (1864)

Cell block, first floor

Hamar Prison was designed by H. E. Schirmer and W. von Hanno, the same architects that designed Oslo Botsfengsel. They worked out a series of prototype drawings for prisons of various sizes, one of which was Hamar.

Hamar prison is a high-security prison for men with 31 cells; three of them can be used as doublets.

Two buildings – one front building for offices and, historically, the prison inspector’s apartment, and a second cell building behind – are connected by a third ‘in-between’ section. The cells are distributed on three floors, accessed from galleries around an open, central hall. An open staircase connects the floors. The guard station is on the first floor, in the ‘in-between’ section.

In the 1980s, Hamar was renovated. A small building for a workshop was added, today used for various small-scale production and crafts, education, and a canteen. The attic of the cell block was extended and converted into a common space for gathering, training, cooking, games etc. In 2017, the cells were equipped with a toilet and windows without bars. Isolation takes place in regular cells.

Administratively, Hamar is part of Kriminalomsorgen Innlandet (Norwegian Correctional Service, Inland County Council).


Reforms & modernization
Ila Prison (Helicopter Flights)

The prison law of 1903 continued the idea of isolation and introduced the principles of progression and release on probation.

One of the two prisons built in the 1930s modernized prison architecture and eased the principle of isolation. Now the 1860s tradition of a large, open hall with several floors containing cells accessed from galleries in the hall, was exchanged for floors that were totally separate. In these units, there were spaces for prisoners to gather for periods of time.

In Ila prison, the idea of health care was made explicit in the form of a large gym centrally placed on the fourth floor with extra large ceiling height. Spaces for health services and an infirmary were accommodated on the top floor as well.

Ila Prison (1939)

Elevations, Main Building
Plan 1st floor, Main Building

Ila Prison was designed by the National Architect (Riksarkitekten) (today Statsbygg, the Norwegian Directorate of Public Construction and Property). Ila was intended as a prison for women, but was never used as such. From 1940, German occupiers used it as a prisoner camp, extended by barracks. From 1945–1950, it was a camp for Norwegians sentenced for treason.

Since 1951, Ila has been used as a prison and detention institution. Today, Ila is a prison for males with 124 cells. More than half, 67 of the cells, are for prisoners on preventive detention, with the rest for custody and ordinary sentences.
Ila was built four floors tall, three floors with cells and the fourth containing a gym, infirmary, and other common spaces.

The basement is situated mostly above ground and, in the 1930’s style, the architecture is rational, with good light conditions, long, straight corridors, and flat roof. Ila now has housing units in three buildings, with a total of 12 units, each comprising seven to 14 prisoners, with cells 7–8 m2.

The main building from 1939 was recently renovated for prisoners on preventive detention. Some of the units have been renovated to have a toilet in the cells.

The south block contains five units, including a security unit with 15 cells. The annex (Annekset) is an additional unit with 12 cells and a separate outdoor area.

There is a school and workshop building in the prison, and a greenhouse outside the fence. Today, the prison is called Ila prison and preventive detention institution (Ila fengsel og forvaringsanstalt).

In 2021, a new building will be opened with a unit for up to six prisoners drawn from across the prison system. This will be an alternative to solitary confinement for prisoners with serious mental illness. The staff will be recruited from prisons and from health care institutions.


Industry & Community
Ullersmo (Knut Falch)

Three decades later, an idea based on participating in production and industry and in community replaced the idea of isolation.

These prisons had workshops for metal and wood production, separate from prisoners’ housing units.

One intention of this design was to resemble regular daily life, going from one’s housing to work, and getting used to a regular workday routine. This is a prison of the social democratic period.
Another intention was to reduce isolation. The Prison Law of 1958 introduced community as a principle of imprisonment. The housing units include a small common space and outdoor spaces where prisoners could meet, in both places for a regulated amount of time.

The buildings are low, two floors high, in accordance with architectural ideals of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Two prisons were built on this model: Ullersmo (1970) and Trondheim (1971).

Ullersmo prison (1970)

Ullersmo Prison (Tore Meek)
Plan 1st floor, Cell Building
Plan basement with Corridor Connecting to Underground Kulvert System

Ullersmo prison was designed by architects Ullring & Zernichow MNAL.

It is a high security prison for men with a total capacity of 286 places in 2019. Of these, 198 places are located in two buildings each housing 72 prisoners, and the unit for isolation of 54 cells. There is a large workshop for wood and for metal work.

The buildings are connected with underground corridors (kulverter). Ullersmo is the only prison where these are used by prisoners for circulation on their own, while being surveilled.
In the 1970s, a school building was added.
The white exterior paint has been removed to expose the original brick walls on the cell buildings which moreover were equipped with pitched roofs.

In 2017, a new four-story building (Model 2015) was built on the site with a maximum of 96 cells. In 2018, a new station at the wall entrance and a new house for visits were built.

(For information about Model 2015, see the section 2015: Consolidation and efficiency.)

Administratively, Ullersmo is part of Romerike prison.


Progression and small units
Bergen Prison (Kriminalomsorgen)

Twenty years later, another prison idea appeared, combining the ideas of progression and small units. By this, the idea of progression was built into the architecture, as prisoners were to advance from a restrictive regime and unit to a less restrictive one, according to their behaviour.

Accordingly, these prisons were designed with several housing complexes with various levels of restrictiveness. Each housing complex includes several units with six to eight cells each, along with space for work and education. The prison consists of a number of small buildings that are connected. The buildings are one to two stories high, with pitched roofs.

Female prisoners, if present, are kept in separate units and may work together with male prisoners.

Bergen (1990) and Skien (1993) prisons, and to some extent Ringerike (1997) prison, were based on this idea.

Bergen Prison (1990)

Bergen Prison (Anna and Jostein Molden)

Bergen prison was designed by architects Anna and Jostein Molden MNAL. It is a high-security-prison with 203 places including an open unit. Twelve places are for women.

Prisoners have access to work and school activities in any building.

The prison was originally built with two large cell building complexes, each 1-2 stories high, with a total of 14 units. The units are organized as pavilions attached to a long, straight hallway, thus creating protected outdoor spaces (patios) between them. The pavilions have 1-2 floors, each containing a unit of 6-8 cells and a common room. Each cell has a small bathroom. The top unit is accessed by a local stairway.

The tiled, pitched roofs and divided volumes adapt the large building complex to the hilly landscape. The design is intended to reduce the institutional image and relate to the local built environment.

In 2000, a two-story unit of 30 isolation cells was added to unit A, built according to a principle similar to Oslo Botsfengsel with cells accessed from galleries in an open hall. There are additional isolation cells in another unit.

In 2017, ‘the lounge’ was added to Unit A as a common space.

In 2005, a fifth unit, M (for "motivation") was added, built from prefabricated modules, with 32 cells. Here prisoners may move around inside and in a specific area outside the unit for longer periods than in the other units.

The site retained its slopes, trees, and rocks. But prisoners are not allowed on these spaces.  

Elevation and main floor plan of housing units, school and workhops
Section and plan of school and workshops


Halden Prison (HLM Architects)

Twenty years after the progression idea appeared, a new idea replaced it, based on the principle of normalization. To be inside prison should resemble life outside "as far as possible".

In practice, this principle of normalization was not new, but given greater emphasis by a white paper from 1997-1998. The normalization idea placed work, education, and housing into separate buildings, like in the industry prison of the 1970s. The intention was the same: to create workday routines like those on the outside, and also to expose prisoners to light and air, the changes of the day and the seasons of the year.

Like in prisons from the 1990s, the design of the normalization prison attempted to minimize institutional elements in architecture and buildings, through the use of materials, colors, landscaping, views, and artwork.

The buildings consist of several wings, creating sheltered outdoor spaces.

The site retained its slopes, trees, and rocks, like in Bergen prison. Also here, prisoners are not allowed on these spaces.

Halden (2010) is the only prison built on this model.

Halden prison (2010)

Site model (Erik Møller Architects)
1st Floor Plan and Elevation of Cell Building

Halden is a high-security prison for men with 228 places, consisting of several buildings spread out on the site with connecting walkways alongside the natural topography and vegetation, not allowed for prisoners for walks.

There are two cell buildings, each two stories high, with eight units of 10 and 12 cells each. Like in Bergen, each cell has a small bathroom.

A large building provides workshops for industry and a wide range of small-scale production and handcrafts. There are rooms for education, music and recording, etc. The building is arranged with four wings connected by a long, double-height hallway lit with skylights that gives access to protected patios between the wings.

There is a separate room for worship, and there is a cabin for overnight family visits.

Halden prison displays high architectural quality in spatial solutions and materials. It is a unique example of cooperation between architects, interior designers, landscape architects and artists, all of whom were contracted by Statsbygg. The architectural intentions were: “that the building should meet staff and prisoners in a friendly, non-authoritarian way” and appear the least possible alienating.

In 2010 Halden received a prize in architecture for its way of implementing “the prison idea of the two mutual dependent elements of stern and soft.”


Consolidation & efficiency
Eidsberg Prison (Norwegian Correctional Service)

Five years after Halden, Model 2015 appeared, representing still other ideas.

Unlike in the prison designs of 1970 and 2010, Model 2015 consolidated housing units and space for work and education into one building. Space for cells and common rooms were made larger than in previous prisons.

The design is cross-shaped and three stories tall, with the first floor given to small workshops, education, training and various programs. The second and third floors contain housing units of twelve cells each, one in each of the four arms of the cross. A large guard station is located at the center of each floor, connected vertically by an internal staircase for the prison officers.

Model 2015 has been built as an extension to Ullersmo prison (1970/2017) and Eidsberg prison (1864/2017). This model is the base for two new prisons in Agder county: Mandal with 100 places opened in June 2020, and Froland with 200 places opened autumn 2020. In the two prisons, efficiency is increased with new digital installations (one of them to surveil prisoners' health conditions).
Self catering is introduced, combining efforts to reduce costs, increase efficiency and to normalize prison conditions.

Model 2015 has received a prize for having “standardized and industrialized” prison construction, “with positive effects on expenses and efficiency.”

Eidsberg Prison (1864/2016)

Elevation (Letnes architects), Plan 2nd and 3rd floor, model 2015

Eidsberg prison consists of a brick building from 1864, a few other small buildings added at different times, and a Model 2015 building, which opened in 2017.

A prototype for Model 2015 was developed by LINK and Erik Møller architects in cooperation with Statsbygg. Architects and contractors are commissioned for each local case, which includes adapting the prototype to the site, and façade design. In Eidsberg, the contracting architect was Letnes arkitektkontor AS.

The main building, Model 2015, has two floors of cells, divided into a total of eight, 12-person units, with four units on each floor. The cells have a small bathroom with toilet and shower.
Model 2015 has no isolation unit, so Eidsberg uses the old brick building as an isolation unit. These cells have been renovated and equipped with toilets.

Small workshops for wood production, bicycle repair, etc., are located on the first floor of Model 2015, providing few workplaces for the prison population.
There is a separate building for a gym.

Eidsberg is a high-security-prison of 102 cells, with about 30% of the places for young prisoners from age 18 to 25.

Administratively Eidsberg is part of Indre Østfold prison.


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