Open-minded Finland offers successful alternative to heavy-handed retribution
Scandinavian prisons in general and Finland’s in particular are often held up as the best in the world. Indeed, the justice subcommittee visited Finland late last year on the advice of a number of experts.
Dr Warner, who based his doctorate on Scandinavian prison systems, sees parallels between Ireland and northern European countries.
“In some ways countries like Norway and Finland have a similar history and social structure in the sense of having been largely agricultural.”
In the 1990s we also had similar rates of incarceration. In 1995 Ireland had about 60 prisoners per 100,000 population, amounting to just over 2,000 prisoners. Since then the number behind bars has more than doubled and the rate of incarceration has increased to 100 per 100,000. For Finland it is 59, while Norway and Denmark have about 70 (the US has the world’s highest rate of incarceration with more than 700 prisoners per 100,000).
Warner blames a “punititve surge” and a hardening of attitudes towards prisoners for the increased rate of incarceration in Ireland.
“Another way we used to be similar to Nordic countries,” he continues “was the attitude towards our prisoners”. Although he says this has always been negative in Ireland he thinks “it’s gotten hugely more negative in the last 15 years”.
He recalls a 1994 Department of Justice report that considered prisoners valued members of society. “That thinking has shifted enormously.”
All prisoners came to be regarded as dangerous violent people. “In fact only maybe a quarter of prisoners are in for violent offences and violence does not define their personality,” he says, dismissing the notion that all prisoners pose a risk to society as “nonsense”.
“In the Nordic countries they are seen as citizens, they are seen as part of the community. They acknowledge they have committed crimes, but they are still seen as part of society.”
A 2008 Norwegian White Paper on the future of imprisonment recommended the holding of joint seminars within prisons between staff and prisoners to determine what a good day in prison should entail. “That kind of attitude would be unthinkable here,” says Warner.
The third main difference between the systems, in his view, is the prisons themselves – the regimes and the overcrowding.
“Sixty per cent of Irish prisoners have to share cells; that’s unheard of in the Nordic countries.” Sharing cells causes all sorts of problems – violence, drug use, tension – but fundamentally constitutes an “affront to people’s dignity” by forcing inmates to go to the toilet in each other’s presence and then “slop out”.