When I first arrive at the island, just a short boat ride from Helsinki city centre, there is an overwhelming sense of something different. This is not the mainland. I can’t tell if it’s the biting breeze radiating off the surrounding crystallised water or the fact that there is now an abundance of plant life, all of which is wilted and barren from the harshness of the winter. Or maybe it’s my prior knowledge of this place that makes me feel just a little displaced.
As I get off the boat I’m accompanied by maybe 10 others, all holiday makers. They set off purposefully, maps in hand, to the one of the nearby cafes (almost none of which will be open because of the season), the sea fortress museum or to marvel at the heritage listed fortress wall.
I continue around the island passing innumerable quaint stone buildings until the path I’m following trails off to an open gate with no indication of security and an easily miss-able sign that reads “Suomenlinna Prison, DO NOT enter”. I walk through the gates and make my way to the nearest of several buildings. All of the buildings have clean lines, are composed of rich materials and look like they belong in a high-end housing estate, somewhere that backs onto a canal.
I meet Prison Director Sinikka Saarela. She is firm but fair and certainly not harsh or foreboding. I scoff internally at the irrationality and vast inaccuracy of my preconceived ideas as Sinikka introduces me to Marco*, an ex-prisoner who has returned to Suomenlinna open prison to meet with me. His manner is quiet, kind and unassuming, as he explains to me politely that his English is not too good, but that he will try his best to answer any questions I have.
“At 7am in the morning the prisoners go to work, then they have a lunch break at 11am for half an hour and then they go back and they finish at 3:30pm. After they finish work they have their own free time. The evenings are free for them to do many different things,” explains Sinikka as she shows me around the residential area of the prison. Suomenlinna prison, like almost half the prisons in Finland, is an open prison, meaning minimal restrictions are placed on prisoners’ movements. Sinikka continues, “Prisoners can go [to] the shop, which is here on the island, they can go to the library and in the evenings some can even go to the town to meet their families, but that’s usually on the weekend.”
As we continue through the prison I’m unable to hide my growing awe for the buildings around me. Sinikka notices and explains to me that the buildings are the product of an architecture competition. The prison is built on an UNESCO World Heritage Site and therefore needs to keep with the aesthetically pleasing nature of the island. Unless you were really looking, it would be easy to mistake the prison for a block of town houses. But despite the innocuous appearance of the prison, Sinikka says as part of the rehabilitative process they don’t encourage families to visit, “families can come on Saturdays. But mostly our prisoners go to meet their families at their homes, in their natural environment. It’s not often that family members come here.”
Sinikka insists these are stringently monitored visits, “Most of our prisoners are from Helsinki or nearby so it’s very easy to see family because it doesn’t take long to go home. But it is very strictly timed and stated in law how often and how these visits happen.”
Marco says visiting your family, particularly if serving a long sentence, can be helpful, “it’s 12 hours in two months. So if you plan it, you can see your family almost every week.”
Marco holds the door open for me as we reach a building towards the back of the prison. It holds the sleeping, living and dining quarters of eight inmates. Inside the building is simple, but with lavish finishes and everything you would expect when you hear the words Nordic architecture. As I take in the warm yet somehow sterile surroundings, Sinikka tells me why there are plans to increase the amount of prisoners who can serve time in open prisons, “The main idea is gradual release bit by bit. I think it has been good because we also have what is called [a] conditional release. It has been really very successful because those who are released after a long sentence through that system really don’t reoffend.”
She shows me the prisoners’ bathroom, a spacious room donned in black tiles. Sinikka explains, “They also have a chance to go outside to get used to the open society again. As there are many effects when you are in a prison for a very long time, it’s really important that before release, prisoners get used to the open society bit by bit. It’s not easy to go back to a normal life.”
I sit in the conference room next to Marco while Sinikka explains the importance of this rehabilitative process and environment, “We had some new research which I just heard about last week that said those who are released straight from the closed prison have a high reoffending rate, about 50%. But, if prisoners go through open prison, and have supervised conditional release with electronic trackers, the reoffending rate is only 20%.”
When I ask Sinikka if anyone can serve time in an open prison, she responds, “The idea is that everybody should have the opportunity to be released into open prison, but there are some who won’t be,” she replies. “Like at the moment, to be honest, those who are involved in organised crime won’t often be released into open prison.
“In this sort of prison which is very, very open, if you have members of organised crime they can start harassing the other prisoners and create a lot of problems. So it’s good when you think there is a better chance of rehabilitation for the other prisoners.”
This heavy emphasis placed on rehabilitation is evident through the programs offered in Finnish prisons. According to Sinikka, the main reasons for incarceration in Finland are drug and alcohol fuelled crimes, and as a result multiple prison programs are implemented to combat these pre-existing problems. Sinikka explains how the correctional system tries to accommodate for different forms of recovery: “We offer private discussions with psychologists, social workers and special members of staff. We have structural programs for anger management, for drunk driving, alcoholism and drug abuse.
“But because here in open prison the whole idea is societal integration, the prisoners use common services from the society. So when they are released they can continue at the same AA group, for example.
“The other thing that aids in rehabilitation is the work. Here the basic idea is that everybody is working. Everyone is going to work every day, having that timeframe and a structure like everybody else in society.”
Marco says, for him, experiencing moments of normalcy helped with his rehabilitation, “here in open prison I went to a place where you can go to just chat with normal people. You can talk about weather or football or anything just normal with normal people and that helped.”
Along with work and community support programs, prisoners also have access to education. However, Sinikka says that few take interest in higher education and it is only an option for prisoners who get approved. But for Marco, this is something that helped him not only to rehabilitate but to integrate back into society. “In closed prison I studied. I studied high school and then later I studied physics at university. When I’d go to university, it’s a good thing, because you feel like you are a normal person. I’d leave left 7am and come back at 6pm,” Marco explains. He says that he thinks becoming educated while in prison will help him transition into stable employment: “I now have a Master’s degree in Spanish and hope to become a translator.”
As Marco explains his studies, an issue that has been plaguing me since I met him reaches boiling point. Why was a man like this, a man who seems reasonable, polite and clearly intelligent, in prison? I ask Marco why he was in prison. The answer is simple and by all rational thought obvious, yet I am taken aback.
“Murder,” he says calmly.