Prison Madness

Looking to Finland for a lesson in humane imprisonment.

Photo by Getty Images/Lupashchenkoiryna.

Some time ago, I was taking part in a book festival in Finland. When there was a free day coming up, the publisher who had invited me asked if there were any local sights I would care to see. Medieval churches, perhaps? I said I’d like to visit some prisons. Finland locks people up at well under 10 percent the rate we do in the United States, a gap far more dramatic than any differences between the people of the two countries can explain. I was curious to learn more. Happily, my publisher’s neighbor was a criminologist, and they arranged a tour for me the next day.

Kerava Prison, the first of two that I saw was in the countryside half an hour’s drive north of Helsinki. Its governor—by design, the title has a civilian sound—was a warm, vivacious, gray-haired woman named Kirsti Nieminen, a former prosecutor. On this wintry morning, she had about 150 prisoners in her charge, all men. Her office wall was lined with portraits of former governors, the first a heavily bearded one from the 1890s. Next to these was a framed drawing by a convict—Snoopy typing a letter, which she translated for me: “Dear Governor, please give me a leave!”

The equivalent of an American medium-security prison, Kerava had barbed-wire fences, bars on some windows, and plenty of locked doors. Some inmates worked in greenhouses outside the walls, but only if they were trusties or under guard. Most resemblance to American prisons ended there. In the greenhouses the inmates raised flowers, which were sold to the public, as were the organic vegetables they grew. As we walked around the prison grounds, Nieminen pointed out a stream where prisoners could fish, a soccer field, a basketball court, a grain mill, and something she was particularly proud of, a barn full of rabbits and lambs. “The responsibility to take care of a creature—it’s very therapeutic,” she said. “They are always kind to you. It’s easier to talk to them.”

For an hour or so, I had coffee with half a dozen prisoners. The heavily tattooed Marko, 36, wore a visor and said he was here for a “violent crime” he did not specify. Jarkko, a burly 26-year-old, was doing three years and ten months for a drug offense; Reima, 36, blond and tough-looking, was in for robbery. Kalla, at 48 the eldest, had committed fraud; Fernando (his father was from Spain) was 26, convicted of armed robbery and selling heroin; Harre, 27, was doing five years for selling ecstasy. Also sitting with us, and translating, were Nieminen, a young woman from the national prisons service who came here with me, and two of Kerava’s teachers, also both women. No armed guards were in sight, and both officials and convicts wore their own clothes, not uniforms.

This was still a prison, however, and at 7:30 p.m. each evening the inmates are locked into their two-man cells. These are not large but somewhat more spacious than those I’ve seen in American prisons, each with a toilet and sink in a cubicle whose door closes. Prisoners are allowed TVs, stereos, and radios. Down the corridor from the cells are a shower room and sauna—something no Finn could imagine being without.

8/28/2019 8:21:32 AM

Released prisoners have the right to live like usual people and to build their lives from the new piece of paper. All of us make mistakes!

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