Open-minded Finland offers successful alternative to heavy-handed retribution
Scandinavia’s liberal approach to prisons appears to be paying dividends
A small fence separates the inmates of Suomenlinna prison, situated on a picturesque little island in Helsinki, Finland, from the tourists milling about outside.
A strange juxtaposition it would seem, but certainly not an anomaly in a country where one-third of the prisons are “open” – minimal security facilities where inmates are sometime let out to do day work before returning in the evening.
In Ireland the last two decades have seen a move towards a more punitive justice model with higher rates of incarceration and longer sentences, so it’s not unreasonable to think we might scoff at such “light” regimes.
But falling prison populations and low rates of recidivism suggest the more liberal Scandinavian approach pays dividends in the long run.
“Open prisons do far less damage to people,” says Dr Kevin Warner, the former national co-ordinator of prison education in Ireland. “They’re built to a large extent on trust and relationships between staff and prisoners; they are much better in terms of helping people resettle. The other extraordinary thing is they cost about half as much to run.”
Denmark, Norway and Finland put a high proportion of prisoners in open facilities. In Ireland about 5 per cent of the prison population is held in the State’s two open prisons at Loughan House and Shelton Abbey.
The Irish Prison Service does not collate figures for recidivism rates but a major study of prisoner reoffending by the UCD Institute of Criminology, published in December 2006, found almost 50 per cent of released prisoners were back inside after four years.
According to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, the recidivism rate in that country is 41 per cent. A study in Finland revealed a rate of 35 per cent there, one of the lowest in the world.
At the end of this month the Oireachtas justice subcommittee on penal reform will publish recommendations for a more efficient, more humane Irish prison system.
It costs about €65,000 a year to incarcerate someone in Ireland, where, on average, 4,400 people are behind bars on any given day.
The flaws and inadequacies of the current set-up are deep-rooted. According to Liam Herrick, director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, the nascent Irish State inherited dated Victorian institutions unfit for purpose in the 1920s which have further deteriorated due to neglect by successive governments.
“If we were designing a system from scratch, we would design a very different prison system,” he says, adding that any reform, to be effective, must be systematic and address issues of overcrowding.