Open-minded Finland offers successful alternative to heavy-handed retribution

Scandinavia’s liberal approach to prisons appears to be paying dividends

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.

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”.

Seven hours

Irish prisoners spend “at best” seven hours a day outside of their cells. “The norm in Nordic countries would be 12, maybe 14 hours out-of-cell time, even in the highest security prisons.”

Senator Ivana Bacik, a law professor at Trinity College and rapporteur for the subcommittee on penal reform, says Finland is interesting because previously the country had bad overcrowding and it was not until the mid to late 20th century that it “deliberately took a decision . . . to change the focus of their prison policy”.

One aspect of the more moderate policy that she finds impressive is the fusion of the prison and probation services.

“The governor of is also the head of the probation office. That means she is in charge of both community and detention sanctions in that area, which is entirely innovative.

“She’s in charge of an open prison; quite a number of her prisoners are out working in the community by day and they travel back to the prison by night. It means it’s a much more seamless integration of community sanction and prison and they’re able to do these conditional releases and structure community programmes with some incarceration alongside that.”

Bacik says Finland is a good example for Ireland because in a relatively short period it successfully transformed a traditional prison system with an emphasis on security to one focused on rehabilitation.

But Herrick says the issue of international comparison is “a complex one”. For reforms to be successful they need to take account of these wider social issues. Countries in northern Europe have managed to reduce prison populations and keep costs low but they “also have much better social supports around issues like homelessness and mental health, which are important factors here”.

The past two decades may have seen negative developments in the way Ireland deals with its prisoners, but recent indications suggest a previously cold political attitude has begun to thaw.

“You’ve got to look at the wider objectives,” says David Stanton, chairman of the committee on penal reform. Prison should rehabilitate prisoners and ensure they can safely re-enter society. To that end “the whole idea of retribution and vengeance and so forth really and truly has been proven across the world not to work”.

Dan Griffin

Dan Griffin

Dan Griffin is an Irish Times journalist