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Open prisons in Finland are 'like a holiday camp' — but they seem to work

Rather than punishing prisoners, Finland's open prisons focus on rehabilitation and preparation for a smooth reentry into society.

A cell at the Ojoinen open prison. The prisoners typically share rooms and are allowed a few personal possessions. Image: Ronan Browne / Yle

"This is like living in a holiday camp," Mikko*, a prisoner at Ojoinen open prison near the city of Hämeenlinna, told Yle News.

Mikko's view is pretty common, and it's not without foundation. Prisoners in the Nordic country get their own rooms, access to plenty of recreation and are transferred to open prisons quickly to prepare for their release.

It's part of a long-standing policy aimed not at mollycoddling those inside, but at ensuring they don’t come back.

Sasu Tyni, a researcher at Helsinki University and the Criminal Sanctions Agency (RISE), says that the system is based on a belief that locking people up is a last resort.

"Closed prisons are more or less grounded in security purposes, while open prisons aim to be closer to society, family, work etc," explains Tyni. "The strategy of the Criminal Sanctions Agency has for years been to use closed prison as the last option. We assume an open prison system can decrease the risk of recidivism."

This philosophy seems to work.

A recent report (siirryt toiseen palveluun) on global recidivism rates — that is, the tendency of a criminal to reoffend after release — found that despite Finland’s perceived 'soft' approach to punishing crime, the reoffending rate of 36 percent was one of the lowest. By comparison, the recidivism rate in the United Kingdom was 48 percent, and in Sweden it was 61 percent.

Finland has the lowest per capita incarceration rate in the European Union, with just 51 people per 100,000 in some form of prison, according to the World Prison Brief. This compares with 59 in neighbouring Sweden, 140 in the United Kingdom and 235 in Lithuania, which has the EU's highest rate of incarceration.

Normal daily routines develop self-sufficiency

Ojoinen bears no resemblance to what might be traditionally considered a prison, and on first arrival visitors would be forgiven for thinking they had come to the wrong place.

There are no fences, no gates, no bars on the windows. Instead there are old farm buildings, a volleyball court and people moving freely around.

As prison governor Kaisa Tammi-Moilanen explains, the prison authorities have "purposely tried to avoid everything that we can which are associated with a prison", which also means that there are no physical barriers stopping the prisoners from attempting to escape. Tammi-Moilanen explains that this is intentional, and is meant to encourage the prisoners to develop their own sense of self-control.

"Prisoners in a closed prison don’t need to learn any self-control, because everything they do is controlled. But to be a normal citizen you need to have inner control of your life, so you know how to behave, you know what is good for you and you know what is good for the society."

Mikko is serving the last few months of his three year sentence for a financial crime at Ojoinen, and he believes that all of the prisoners benefit from learning to become self-sufficient during their time at an open prison.

"Especially for the younger men, who have been involved in drugs, this system helps them to get their life on track," says Mikko. "They become used to waking up early, going to work, and taking care of themselves, instead of taking drugs at night and lying in bed all day."

A prisoner’s typical weekday at Ojoinen usually begins at 6am, when they wake up and have breakfast, before reporting to the prison reception for the morning roll-call.

By 7am, the prisoners are ready to begin their working day. A number of prisoners have jobs with local businesses, while the rest perform tasks organised by the prison.

Story continues after photo.

Prisoners from Ojoinen involved in forestry work in the local area. Image: Ronan Browne / Yle

The idea of self-sufficiency is apparent in every aspect of daily life at Ojoinen. There is no canteen, so the prisoners must shop for and prepare their own food. On the day Yle News visited Ojoinen, a local NGO was holding a cooking class with a group of prisoners - one of whom confessed to having never cooked a meal before coming to the camp.

Once the working day is over and the evening meal has been eaten and cleared away, the prisoners are free to spend their time as they wish. There are exercise areas, television rooms and many prisoners have video game consoles in their cells. Mikko, who served the first part of his sentence at a closed prison, welcomes the freedom of choice and movement that he enjoys at Ojoinen -- and the wider atmosphere it creates -- compared to his earlier prison experience.

"The atmosphere in the evening is totally relaxed, and there is no comparison between how the atmosphere is at a closed prison. They are completely different. I do not have to feel nervous at all," Mikko says.

Story continues after photo.

Prisoners shop for their own food and prepare their own meals. Image: Ronan Browne / Yle

Teemu*, who also did not wish to be named for this article, believes he is a good example of how the focus on rehabilitation can make a prisoner turn their life around. He is spending the final year of his 15 year sentence for murder at Ojoinen, and sees his time at the camp as a crucial step before he re-enters society.

"Throughout my time here, I have been preparing step by step for my release date, and I think I am ready to return to a normal life," Teemu explains. "I have been able to build a future while I have been here, and I have so many people around me who I can ask for help."

Since coming to Ojoinen Teemu has been able to kick his drug addiction and has also enrolled in a cookery course, from which he hopes to graduate at about the same time he is released from prison.

Although he knows getting a job in the outside world might be tough because of his criminal record, he is optimistic about his chances because of the education he has received and the many years of work experience he has accumulated while in prison.

"If I am honest and tell my employer about my prison background, then I believe that I will be able get a job," he says.

"There is hope"

This dual focus on rehabilitation and the development of self-sufficiency is the cornerstone of the Ojoinen experience, according to the prison’s director Tammi-Moilanen, who has 28 years experience of working in open and closed prisons across Finland.

"When you put people into institutions like prisons, they become institutionalised. But we don’t want this," Tammi-Moilanen explains. "The key is that we try to give people the idea that it is possible to change, that there is hope."

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Kaisa Tammi-Moilanen is the Director of Ojoinen prison. Image: Ronan Browne / Yle

Tammi-Moilanen acknowledges criticisms of the open prison system — that it is too lenient on criminals and too soft on crime — but she says her counter-argument is always that this system is the best option for society as a whole.

"People often ask if we are on the prisoners’ side, and I always say no, we are on the society’s side," says Tammi-Moilanen. "We want a safer society for all and we do that by giving people a chance to become better versions of themselves."

Room for improvement

With 5.5 million people living in Finland, this translates to a prison population of just 2,842, of whom as many as 40 percent will spend at least some part of their sentence at an open prison facility — most commonly for a period before their release. Currently in Finland there are 11 open prisons and 15 closed prisons.

Finland’s prison system has garnered a lot of media attention from abroad, much of it positive. The stories include including articles in the US news network NBC (siirryt toiseen palveluun), and the French state-owned international news television network France 24 (siirryt toiseen palveluun).

However, it also receives critical scrutiny much closer to home. Former police officer and current Finns Party member of parliament Mika Raatikainen told Yle News that although the system works "quite well", there is still room for improvement.

"The selection process which decides which inmates are eligible to be transferred to the open prisons should be evaluated so that it can be developed further and mistakes avoided," Raatikainen said. "Of course, the system is not going to be bulletproof but by carefully studying the statistics and the psychological data of the inmates I’m sure that it can be improved further."

Raatikainen began his career with the Helsinki police department in 1983 as a uniformed patrol officer before moving on to investigating organised crime and drug gangs. He became involved in politics in the late 2000’s and believes the Finns Party was an "obvious choice" for him due to the party’s viewpoint on a number of different issues, including crime.

"The Finns party's stance is that the Finnish law and punishments handed out by the Finnish courts regarding some crimes is too lenient," Raatikainen said. "The average Joe doesn't understand why these crimes aren’t punished more severely – now the sentences handed out seem sometimes like ugly jokes from the victim’s point of view."

Researcher Tyni says it is difficult to find evidence to back up that view of criminal justice policy.

"It is hard to argue that open prison systems don’t work," says Tyni. "You can consider the system as a progressive system where a prisoner starts his or her sentence in a closed prison, moves later into an open prison, continues to electronic monitoring out in society and lastly to parole. It is a step-by-step process based on an individual sentence plan."

Prisoner Mikko certainly agrees. He was released just three days after Yle News’ visit to Ojoinen. Despite his comment that life at Ojoinen was like a holiday camp, he also said that after his release he has "absolutely no intention of ever coming back".

*Aliases used to protect the identity of the interviewees.