Cells are small rooms where prisoners spend most of their time. Ordinary cells have a window, bed, sink, desk, chair, shelves or cabinet, and a TV. Some have a fridge. Since the 1990s, cells have had a bathroom. Toilets have recently been installed in several cells in older prisons.
Cells have various social qualities. They are the most private space in a prison, not monitored by camera. Most prisoners have a key to their cell. Prison officers can control the cells at any time. And the privacy can be turned into isolation, either forced or because prisoners isolate themselves.
Prisoners are locked up and isolated as part of the daily routine, usually for more than 10 hours per day.
In the 2010s, high security prisons from 1850 and 1970 have been renovated, so most ordinary cells include TV and toilet. In several prisons, windows with bars have been exchanged by bulletproof window panes. In prisons of 2020, cells include a refrigerator.
– "Do you feel like you have privacy in the cell?"
“No, not much, because the officers can open the door when they want, and search the cell when they want.
No, we don’t have privacy, but you can’t expect anything else.”
Most cells are 2.2 x 3.9m. In 2018, two larger cells in Hamar were used as doublets, meaning for two prisoners. The image shows a double cell, currently occupied by a single prisoner.
As of 2017, all cells in Hamar prison have been renovated and equipped with toilets.
Most cells in Ila are 7-8m2. In 2018, some cells had toilets, but most did not.
“Sometimes, when you have to go to the toilet, you call the officers, and they maybe use an hour, or an hour and a half, and that ends with having to use the trashcan or a bottle.”
The cells at Ullersmo are small, 2 x 3 m.
“In these blocks, it is very, very small cells, it’s like shoeboxes.”
"And you know it’s very noisy. It’s very noisy, because they have nothing to keep the noise down, and you have 20 people screaming, shouting, you know."
In Ullersmo, like in all prisons, prison officers may enter the cells at any time, whether prisoners are present or not. There are daily cell-checks, counting of prisoners, and from time to time, there are controls of one cell or the unit, the common space, cells and visitation, which is called ‘razzia.’ Dogs are used in razzias.
“But the flip-side to having a toilet in the cell is that if they want, they just lock you in, and you don’t have to go outside.”
The cells in Bergen are wider than the previous ones, 2.8m width compared with 2m in Ullersmo, which allows for a more comfortable furnishing. They have small bathrooms with a shower. The corridors have bays so that the cell doors, when open, are ‘hidden’ and don’t disturb the circulation.
The cells in Bergen, Halden and Model 2015 are larger than those from the 1970s; at Eidsberg, they are 9.8m2 plus a bathroom of 1.7m2.
“It makes it easier for the guards, because when you have everything in your cell, they can feed you through the hole in the door.
So that’s why they make these new, nice, big cells. Not because of us. It’s more convenient for them.”
Since the isolation prison, cells have been organized into units ranging from 6 to about 20 cells. Units contain common space with a kitchen, table for meals, sitting area and television. Some have tables tennis and billiards. A guard station is connected to the unit.
Prisoners spend most of the time here, mostly locked up in the cell. They have access to the common space when cell doors are unlocked, usually one hour in the morning and some hours in the afternoon.
Common space is for daily activities like talks, making food and eating together, watching TV and movies, playing video games, etc.
“It doesn’t really matter how your cell looks, if it’s small or if it’s big. It’s about who they put you together with, in the avdeling, actually. This is the main thing in prison.”
"For me, a prison is a prison, and I don’t really think about the architecture.”
"But you know, it’s not the building that rehabilitates you when you have the sentence.”
- “You are interested in keeping the calm?”
“Yes, everybody just minding their own business.”
Isolation prisons were designed without common space.
Today, Hamar prison, with 31 prisoners, operates as one unit. Prisoners have access to the galleries on all the three floors when cell doors are unlocked, and to a small kitchen section on the ground floor. Every other day, they can use the common space in the fourth floor, which has a kitchen, sitting area, and game tables, for 1.5 hours.
Ullersmo has the largest units, built with 20 cells each, and housing 18 prisoners. (Two cells in each unit are used for storage etc.) The common space that has kitchen, dining area, and sitting area with TV, is too small for all 18 prisoners to gather at the same time.
In prisons with units of 10 to 20 cells, prisoners organize access to the kitchen and join small groups. Some prisoners do not use the common space.
“You have people [who] just sit there, get their food and go into their cells. And these people make it work.
If it were not for these people, it would be fucking chaos in this avdeling [unit].”
In Bergen prison, units have six or eight cells and a common space with kitchen, dining area, and sitting area with TV.
Since the 1990s, prisons have been built with common spaces that have room for all prisoners in the unit, and improved kitchens.
“In [Prison], it was only six in every avdeling. Then it is easier to connect and we tried to make a community where we make food together, because it was fewer people.”
“If you get only one asshole in six people, you’re going to fuck up the whole unit. Here, if you have a few assholes, you know, it doesn’t really matter, because you still have your people that you make your food with.”
The newest prisons, Halden and Model 2015, have 10 to 12 cells in each unit. They have larger kitchens than previous prisons, and dining areas and sitting areas.