Alternative prisons around the world

A fence standing fourteen feet high – it’s a grey mass of steel topped by razor wire. Inside, prisoners dawdle about a barren courtyard, or break into fist fights. That’s how most people imagine life behind bars. But some prisons around the world are more like holiday camps, than places of punishment.

ABOVE: In 2017 138 prison inmates were killed in Brazil’s overcrowded and violent system. Could those on the inside be trusted to keep law and order if they were handed the keys?. Full story On Demand.

A 2017 report by the Institute of Public Affairs Criminal Justice Project found that on average, Australia spends more on criminal justice than most other developed countries, yet the system is failing to reform inmates. Of the 42,000 inmates inside Australia’s prisons, 45 per cent of them will re-offend once released, asking the question; is our system the best way of rehabilitating offenders and deterring crime?

Dateline takes a look at some of the alternative prison systems around the world.



In Norway, Bastoy Prison sits on an isolated island off the coast of Oslo and holds 115 inmates who trade the prison courtyard for a farm, and their jail cells for wooden cottages. During their free time, inmates are encouraged to participate in leisure activities like horseback riding and cross-country skiing. This model has proven to be successful for Bastoy Prison’s inmates with recidivism rates at 16 percent, compared to the European average of 70 per cent. In Scandinavian neighbour Finland, Suomenlinna Prison holds 100 men, and allows prisoners to reside in wood cabins with living rooms and proper cooking facilities. They are also allowed access to mobile phones and emails to communicate with their loved ones.

Taking a leaf from Italy’s renowned culinary culture, Fortezza Medicea in Tuscany uses recipes to rehabilitate its prisoners. Locals and tourists frequent a restaurant run by the prison’s inmates, many of whom are serving time for violent crimes. The prisoners work alongside a professional chef to learn culinary skills and prepare meals for customers.

In Spain, Aranjuez Prison holds the unique distinction of having cells for families, allowing parents and children to stay with their incarcerated family members.

Bastoy Prison
Source: Getty Images Europe


On the outside, San Antonio prison on Margarita Island in Venezuela looks like any other penitentiary. However, inside the locked gates, anything goes. Prisoners sit by a poolside, while others relax with their wives or girlfriends in air conditioned cells. Escapes from this prison are rare, but the penitentiary is known for its riots and in 2010, a grenade ripped through its infirmary, killing several prisoners.

In Bolivia’s San Pedro prison, the largest in La Paz, inmates are forced to earn a living to pay for their prison cells. In this ‘city behind walls’, if inmates cannot afford a cell, they are confined to living ‘on the streets’ inside the prison, which is more dangerous than life on the streets outside.  Drug dealers and prostitutes come and go and cocaine is produced and trafficked from within the prison’s high walls.  


Inmates at the CERESO Chetumal prison in Mexico are encouraged to dabble in creative arts, entrepreneurship ventures, and are even allowed to sell their crafts in the prison shop. If inmates pay a modest fee, they can also treat themselves to a Reiki or Swedish massage treatment in the facility. 


In the Philippines, Cebu’s Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Centre (CPDRC)’s made headlines around the world, when vision of more than 1500 inmates dancing to Michael Jackson’s thriller was posted to YouTube. The prison is infamous for holding inmates convicted of murder, rape, and narcotics trafficking amongst other offences. The rehabilitation program in this prison uses dance choreography to keep inmates occupied, and they often spend up to four hours a day rehearsing different routines. 

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Dateline is an Australian award-winning international documentary series. Each week Dateline scours the globe to bring you a world of daring stories.
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3 min read
Published 16 October 2018 at 9:36pm
By SBS Dateline
Source: SBS