Prisons are very unique places that present inmates with unique situations. Because of these abnormal environments, people are likely going to act differently than they would in what is considered normal society. The film accurately portrays the actions and mentality of the inmates and their superiors.
Juvenile Delinquents and their Superiors
In King of Devil's island, much of the backstory of the Bastøy boys is left out. In the film, the Governor of the prison says this is because we don’t worry about the past or the future, there is only the present. However, understanding what caused the boys to be detained can help to explain their behavior on the island. There are numerous causes to someone participating in criminal behavior. The primary causes are their upbringing, their current circumstance, and the time immediately before the crime.(1) For the Bastøy boys, their current circumstance is still their upbringing and their childhood. Many comments are made throughout the film by the house fathers and guards about their upbringing calling them "sons of whores," "gypsies," and "thieving troublemakers." It is clear in the film these boys did not come from upper classes. Thus, they were more likely to partake and get caught doing criminal behavior.
Sometimes the Bastøy boys' actions were contradictory towards each other. One might help another carry their load if they are struggling, but then in the next scene push each other and block their path. Cooke, Howison, and Baldwin report changes in behavior are expected from detainees because of sudden losses of everyday things such as freedom and family.(2) The boys lash out as a way of trying to regain choice. They bond together to replace the family they may have once or never had. In the film, Erling takes on a fatherly role after arriving, and Olav evolves into more of a motherly figure. The two guide the younger boys and protect them throughout the film.
Today's viewer would quickly describe the guards' behavior as unnecessarily cruel and inhumane. They, too, are products of their environment. People in prison settings are quick to take on assigned roles and fulfill them as best they can.(3) This can be seen through Bråthen, the house father. He has been at Bastøy for nine years, and is shown as the cruelest of the prison workers. He berates and beats the boys whenever he feels like it. He uses force and aggression to assert his dominance over the boys.
The climax of the film begins when Olav, who is about to leave the island, beats Bråthen up. Eventually the boys hold Bråthen hostage and run the rest of the guards off the island. This is not anything new, taking hostages or overthrowing the leadership is laced throughout prison history.(4) Olav started the spark before being put in solitary, and once they escaped there was no turning back. Olav disclosed sensitive information about Ivar's safety and was not taken seriously. To make a change, something drastic had to occur.
In the film, it slowly becomes apparent that one of the inmates, Ivar, has been repeatedly sexually abused by the “house father,” Bråthen. Ivar comes into the institution as a nervous, slightly optimistic boy. However, as soon as the abuse begins, Ivar appears to become more withdrawn. Research on child victims of sexual abuse shows they can become more fearful and show a more intense longing for safety.(5) This is directly paralleled in Ivar. He is desperate to leave, begging to go with during Erling’s first attempt at escape. Getting off the island would provide distance and safety. The plan fails for both Ivar and Erling. Eventually, when it becomes clear that he will never be safe from Bråthen, Ivar kills himself by filling his pockets with rocks and walking into the sea.
Bråthen, Ivar’s abuser, is a sinister figure from the beginning. He is violent with Erling and Ivar as soon as they arrive, cutting their hair with a rough hand and quickly asserting his dominance. Cooke, Howison, and Baldwin note that when “a man sexually assaults another man or a woman, he is often wanting to demonstrate power of masculinity by humiliating the victim.”(6) The abuse is only ever alluded to, so Bråthen’s direct motivations cannot be discerned for sure. However, it is clear he enjoys his position of power. The movie makes it known that Bråthen has been at the institution for nine years, an unusual amount of time for a housefather to remain. A link between this duration of employment, a desire for power, and the presence of boys like Ivar is not unreasonable.
Ivar’s storyline begins its climax when headboy Olav becomes aware of Bråthen’s abuse of power. Enraged, Olav goes to report the incidents to the Governor. Equally angry, the Governor initially refutes Olav’s claims, saying something so perverted could not possibly happen. It is not uncommon for sexual assault claims to be dismissed. Kiara Minto notes that “Overall, the data shows that group loyalties provide a psychological motivation to disbelieve child abuse allegations. Further, the people for whom this motivation is strongest are also the people who are most likely to be responsible for receiving and investigating allegations: highly identified ingroup members.”(7) The Governor likely felt obliged to side with his employee, dismissing the claims and sending Olav away. Not only that, should he choose to believe Olav, it is the Governor who would be called upon to act. It is very clear that he does not wish to do so. It becomes obvious that the Governor soon develops doubts; he may believe Olav after all. However, he obviously does not know how to properly deal with the accusations. He sends Ivar away from the laundry room (where the abuse is likely happening) and into the forest to push the issue under the rug. He is only forced to truly deal with the situation after Ivar dies.
Overall, the King of Devil’s Island presents an accurate portrayal of inmate life and behavior, especially when relating to specific situations, like Ivar’s abuse.
(1) David Cooke, Jacqueline Howison, and Pamela J. Baldwin, Psychology in Prisons, (London: Routledge) 1990, 8.
(2) Cooke, Psychology in Prisons, 55-56.
(3) Craig Haney and Philip Zimbardo, "The Past and Future of U.S. Prison Policy. Twenty-Five Years After the Stanford Prison Experiment," American Psychologist 53, no. 7 (1998): 709, 199.
(4) Cooke, Psychology in Prisons, 112.
(5) Jennifer E. Gonzalez, Naomi J. Wheeler, and Andrew P. Daire, "Exploratory Analyses of Cognitive Schemas for Child and Adolescent Sexual Abuse Survivors: Implications for the Research to Practice Gap," Journal of Mental Health Counseling 39, no. 1 (2017): 26, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2017).
(6) Cooke, Psychology in Prisons, 20.
(7) Kiara Minto, et al. "A Social Identity Approach to Understanding Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Allegations," Plos One 11, no. 4 (2016): 1, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2017).
Written by Marah Moy and Ali Froslie.