Finland could shift more prisoners to open jails

The Criminal Sanctions Agency said it wants to bring prisons to growth centres and help inmates to study.

Tiia Civil said that moving to an open prison and being able to study and work changed her life. Image: Simo Pitkänen / Yle

Finland's Criminal Sanctions Agency (siirryt toiseen palveluun) (Rise) wants to increase support for prisoner rehabilitation to help convicts return to civilian life and avoid repeat offenses.

The plan, which is to be considered by the newly-elected government, involves reducing the number of prisons from 26 to 23 and increasing the number of prisoners in open prisons as opposed to closed facilities.

The plan came to light when Lännen Media reported leaked analysis from Rise on 11 June.

According to Rise Head of Development Pauli Jokinen, new technology is constantly emerging that makes jail less necessary. Open prisons are, according to Jokinen, much better at ensuring released prisoners do not re-offend.

"Those released from open prisons re-offend much less than those coming out of closed prisons," said Jokinen. "Up to 50 percent of those released from closed prisons re-offend, but that's much less common with open prisons. Of course the prisoner populations in open and closed jails are quite different as well."

Epitome of rehabilitation

Rise's open prison in Laukaa, Central Finland has specialised in inmate rehabilitation and education for 15 years. That facility will soon be shuttered, with its services moving to a brand new prison campus in nearby Jyväskylä.

Laukaa warden Tuula Tarvainen said the new complex, closer to the urban heart of the region, will be the epitome of Finnish rehabilitative incarceration.

This is where the new Jyväskylä prison campus will rise up soon. Image: Simo Pitkänen / Yle

"Here in Laukaa, we have long striven to make all our work education-based," she said. "We are working closely with the Jyväskylä Educational Consortium Gradia, and we will further deepen that collaboration."

Prisoners at the Laukaa jail have the opportunity to study woodworking and wooden surface finishing. The prison holds that the precision handicraft may help inmates learn valuable skills to bring into working life once they are freed.

Once the Jyväskylä campus is up and running, said Tarvainen, prisoners will attend courses at official schools instead of having trainers visit the prison.

Approaching urban centres faces critique

The Criminal Sanctions Agency says it wants to move its prisons closer to urban growth centres in order to take advantage of the resources and services that those areas can offer. Hospitals, social services and learning institutions can all be accessed more easily when the prison facility is located nearby.

However, even development chief Pauli Nieminen from Rise admits that there are risks involved in bringing prisons closer to cities, beyond mere complaints from locals.

Handicrafts and other courses help inmates learn skills to use in the outside world. Image: Simo Pitkänen / Yle

"The support services that can help released prisoners integrate back into society are more important than the risks – but we have to be aware of those, too," Nieminen said. "If an inmate misbehaves in an open facility, we endeavour to find out what more they need to learn before civilian life is a realistic option."

Risks include easier access to drugs and other illicit items. Additionally, inmates themselves such as Tiia Civil say that being imprisoned in a rural area makes it easier to learn, rehabilitate and coalesce after kicking a substance abuse habit.

"I like to take walks around Laukaa," said Civil, who is just two months away from finishing her sentence for manslaughter. "Cities have their perks, but I would rather the prisons stayed in the countryside."

Finland has 15 so-called closed prisons and 11 open prison facilities. The main difference is that in a closed prison only employees and other inmates are present, and everyday routines are strictly enforced. Open prisons are freer in their monitoring and the openness of living quarters – a far cry from the lonely existence in closed institutions, according to Civil.

"Moving from a closed prison to an open one was a huge relief. I was able to study and work, and that gave me a new purpose while I was dealing with my crimes."