Thu, 02 Jan 2003 - New York Times (NY)
Finnish Prisons: No Gates Or Armed Guards
By Warren Hoge
KERAVA, Finland - Going by the numbers, Antti Syvajarvi is a loser. He is a prison inmate in Finland - the country that jails fewer of its citizens than any other in the European Union.
Still, he counts himself fortunate.
"If I have to be a prisoner," he said, "I'm happy I'm one in Finland because I trust the Finnish system."
So, evidently, do law-abiding Finns, even though their system is Europe's most lenient and would probably be the object of soft-on-criminals derision in many societies outside of the Nordic countries.
In polls measuring what national institutions they admire the most, Finns put their criminal-coddling police in the No. 1 position.
The force is the smallest in per capita terms in Europe, but it has a corruption-free reputation and it solves 90 percent of its serious crimes.
"I know this system sounds like a curiosity," said Markku Salminen, a former beat patrolman and homicide detective who is now the director general of the prison service in charge of punishments. "But if you visit our prisons and walk our streets, you will see that this very mild version of law enforcement works. I don't blame other countries for having harsher systems because they have different histories and politics, but this model works for us."
Finland, a relatively classless culture with a Scandinavian belief in the benevolence of the state and a trust in its civic institutions, is something of a laboratory for gentle justice. The kinds of economic and social disparities that can produce violence don't exist in Finland's welfare state society, street crime is low, and law enforcement officials can count on support from an uncynical public.
Look in on Finland's penal institutions, whether those the system categorizes as "open" or "closed," and it is hard to tell when you've entered the world of custody. "This is a closed prison," Esko Aaltonen, warden of the Hameenlinna penitentiary, said in welcoming a visitor. "But you may have noticed you just drove in, and there was no gate blocking you."
Walls and fences have been removed in favor of unobtrusive camera surveillance and electronic alert networks. Instead of clanging iron gates, metal passageways and grim cells, there are linoleum-floored hallways lined with living spaces for inmates that resemble dormitory rooms more than lockups in a slammer.
Guards are unarmed and wear either civilian clothes or uniforms free of emblems like chevrons and epaulettes. "There are 10 guns in this prison, and they are all in my safe," Mr. Aaltonen said.
"The only time I take them out is for transfer of prisoners."
At the "open" prisons, inmates and guards address each other by first name. Prison superintendents go by nonmilitary titles like manager or governor, and prisoners are sometimes referred to as "clients" or, if they are youths, "pupils."
"We are parents, that's what we are," said Kirsti Njeminen, governor of the Kerava prison that specializes in rehabilitating young offenders like Mr. Syvajarvi.
Generous home leaves are available, particularly as the end of a sentence nears, and for midterm inmates, there are houses on the grounds, with privacy assured, where they can spend up to four days at a time with visiting spouses and children.
"We believe that the loss of freedom is the major punishment, so we try to make it as nice inside as possible," said Merja Toivonen, a supervisor at Hameenlinna.
Natalia Leppamaki, 39, a Russian immigrant convicted of drunken driving, switched off a sewing machine she was using to make prison clothing and picked up on Ms. Toivonen's point. "Here you have work, you can eat and you can do sports, but home is home, and I don't think you'll see me in here again," she said.
Thirty years ago, Finland had a rigid model, inherited from neighboring Russia, and one of the highest rates of imprisonment in Europe. But then academics provoked a thoroughgoing rethinking of penal policy, with their argument that it ought to reflect the region's liberal theories of social organization.
"Finnish criminal policy is exceptionally expert-oriented," said Tapio Lappi-Seppala, director of the National Research Institute of Legal Policy. "We believe in the moral-creating and value-shaping effect of punishment instead of punishment as retribution."
He asserted that over the last two decades, more than 40,000 Finns had been spared prison, $20 million in costs had been saved, and the crime rate had gone down to relatively low Scandinavian levels.
Mr. Salminen, the prison service director, pulled out a piece of paper and drew three horizontal lines. "This first level is self-control, the second is social control and the third is officer control. In Finland," he explained, "we try to intervene at this first level so people won't get to the other two."
The men and women who work in the prisons also back the softer approach. "There are officers who were here 20 and 30 years ago, and they say it was much tougher to work then, with more people trying to escape and more prison violence," said Kaisa Tammi-Moilanen, 32, governor of the open ward at Hameenlinna.
She conceded that there were people who took advantage of the leniency. Risto Nikunen, 41, a grizzled drifter who has never held a job and has been in prison 11 times, was asked outside his drug rehabilitation unit if he might be one of them. "Well," he shrugged, "many people do come to prison to take a break and try to get better again."
Prison officials can give up to 20 days solitary confinement to inmates as punishment for infractions like fighting or possessing drugs, though the usual term is from three to five days. Mr. Aaltonen said he tried to avoid even that by first talking out the problem with the offending inmate.
Finnish courts mete out four general punishments - a fine, a conditional sentence, which amounts to probation, community service and an unconditional sentence. Even this last category is made less harsh by a practice of letting prisoners out after only half their term is served. Like the rest of the countries of the European Union, Finland has no death penalty.
According to the Ministry of Justice in Helsinki, there are a little more than 2,700 prisoners in Finland, a country of 5.2 million people, or 52 for every 100,000 inhabitants. Ministry figures show the comparable rate is 702 per 100,000 in the United States, 664 in Russia and 131 in Portugal, the highest in the European Union.
Finland's chief worry now is the rise in drug-related crimes that do result in prison sentences and the growing number of Russians and Estonians, who Mr. Lappi-Seppala said were introducing organized-crime activities into Finland.
Finns credit their press and their politicians with keeping the law-and-order debate civil and not strident. "Our newspapers are not full of sex and crime," Mr. Salminen said. "And there is no pressure on me to get tough on criminals from populist-issue politicians like there would be in a lot of other countries."
One reason why the Finnish public may tolerate their policy of limited punishment is that victims receive compensation payments from the government. Mrs. Tammi-Moilanen was asked if this was enough to keep them from getting angry over the system of gentle justice.
"My feeling is that victims wouldn't feel that justice is better done by giving very severe punishment," she said. "We don't believe in an eye for an eye, we are a bit more civilized than that, I hope."
Mr. Syvajarvi, a muscular 21-year-old with close-cropped hair who become a heroin addict at age 14, received a six-year sentence for drug selling and assaults. As a young offender, he will serve only a third of that time, and he is expected to be out in a year.
He is now the appointed "big brother" peer counselor to other youths in the jail, must submit to random drug checks to make sure he remains off the habit and has undergone training with anger management specialists that he says has prepared him to rejoin society with a new outlook.
"Before, I wanted to be like those drug dealers in the States," he said, adding in English, "I was a gangster wannabe." He went into a boxer's crouch and popped punches in the air. "I used to think the most important thing was to stand up for yourself.
"Now I've learned that it takes more courage to run away."
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