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Finnish jails suffer guard shortage

Finland cut training capacity for prison guards a decade ago. 

Pyhäselkä prison guards Juha Ovaskainen and Atso Pesonen say that most threatening situations can be resolved through dialogue. Image: Saana Sjöblom-Hasselblatt / Yle

Prisons in Finland are staffed in part by personnel who lack the required training, thanks to a reduction in training capacity implemented a decade ago.

The problem has been evident for a couple of years, and at Pyhäselkä jail in Joensuu open positions have been advertised without applications from qualified candidates.

"A significant number of our staff at the moment are unqualified temporary workers," said prison governor Jaana Leinonen-Nielsen.

She declined to specify how many of the prison's guards don't have the right qualifications.

The Criminal Sanctions Agency (Finnish acronym Rise), which manages Finland's jails, says that large, closed prisons have the biggest staffing issues. Those include prison facilities in Helsinki, Vantaa, Turku and Sukeva.

Violence adds to workload

The staff shortage makes jails less secure and adds to guards' workloads. Although temporary guards perform their tasks with the same responsibilities as qualified staff, they do not all perform the same duties.

For example at Pyhäselkä, it's agreed that certain tasks have to be carried out by qualified guards. That means that every shift has to have qualified guards as well as temporary staff.

"Training temporary staff has to be done on top of your normal work and that increases the burden," says prison guard Atso Pesonen.

He works at Pyhäselkä jail and is the chair of the local prison guards' union.

Austerity measures bite back

The director of Rise, Arto Kujala, says that the shortage has its roots in savings implemented between 2006 and 2016. That brought in big cuts to guards' training: in 2008 some 80 students were taken on, but since 2010 the number has been 36-40.

Kujula says the problem was recognised too late.

"The amount of training offered should have been increased years ago if we were to have enough staff to hire now," said Kujala.

There are some 2,600 employees at Rise, of whom around half work in guard or security positions.

Guards increasingly face threats

Guards say another reason for the lack of candidates is their working conditions.

Yle reported last year that intimidation and threats had increased in prisons. Juha Ovaskainen, who has worked as a guard for more than 30 years, says the job has become more demanding.

"The prisoners have become more challenging," says Ovaskainen, who works at Pyhäselkä. "Almost all of them have a substance abuse problem. Mental health issues have also increased."

Ovaskainen and Pesonen are not showing their faces in images for this story because of the threats of violence they receive. Within the prison they are of course recognisable faces, but they say that threatening situations have also occurred in daily life outside prison walls.

According to the prison guards' union, more than 60 percent of guards have considered changing professions. Security risks and a heavy workload were mentioned as reasons.

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A union survey found that some 60 percent of guards had considered changing jobs. Image: Saana Sjöblom-Hasselblatt / Yle

The union says any response has been too slow, and they want more action from Rise.

Rise boss Kujala says that problems have been taken seriously, however.

From the start of the year Rise has conducted a number of surveys about security in prisons, which prompted a raft of measures. Kujala says some of those have already been implemented.

For example, fewer guards now work alone, and security technology in prisons has been updated. In the autumn Rise stopped housing women and men in the same open prisons, which helped to reduce harassment of women prisoners.

Next year further changes are planned in the placement of prisoners.

"We will establish new units where we'll place those prisoners who most seriously endanger prison security," said Kujala.

In future, dangerous prisoners will be concentrated in Riihimäki, Turku, Sukeva and Mikkeli. New units will also be set up for young and under-age prisoners, and for women prisoners.

The idea is that separate units can better respond to the needs of different groups.

Rise director Arto Kujala admits that the staff shortage has increased the workload for prison guards. Image: Jaani Lampinen / Yle

Pandemic improved security

The Covid pandemic has improved security at Pyhäselkä, at least. At the start of the epidemic outdoor exercise and mealtimes were segmented by the facility's wings. That calmed the atmosphere within the jail and staff intend to continue the practice once the epidemic is over.

"Before we could have 60 prisoners outside at the same time," says governor Leinonen-Nielsen. "Now we have 10-15. It is clear that managing this kind of group is easier, if there is any disturbance."

On the other hand, this practice requires more staff as each wing needs to be monitored separately. In addition, separating them is not as conducive to rehabilitation as their opportunities to interact with others are reduced.

Leadership, crime prevention and training are key

Director Kujala says that Rise will establish its own unit focused on crime prevention. That is part of a broader reorganisation within the agency. Leadership is also on the agenda.

"Our reports show that we don't know how to lead on prison security," says Kujala. "I think that this is not about individual managers' abilities, we have structural problems."

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Staff have recovered makeshift tattooing devices from cells at Pyhäselkä Image: Ari Haimakainen / Yle

Training will also get better resources. Rise is considering wider-ranging studies and co-operation with educational institutions.

At the moment the only institution where it is possible to qualify as a guard is at the Rise training centre in Vantaa.

Pyhäselkä governor Leinonen-Nielsen says that a lot of her temporary staff would be interested in training to become qualified in their roles, but the educational programmes on offer are impractical.

"They have to leave and study in southern Finland, but people with families, for example, don't always find that very easy," says the governor.

Staff shortage to remain

Pyhäselkä guards Pesonen and Ovaskainen say that the profession's drawing power needs to be improved. In their opinion, Rise does not have a good reputation as an employer.

Rise boss Kujala, meanwhile, says that there is interest in becoming prison guards, but that prisons would still be under-staffed in his opinion even if all open posts were filled.

That's because of savings made since 2010.

"We cut 500 staff, but the amount of work did not reduce," so when we take into account the tasks and the agency's structure, we have too few staff in principle."