The warden had to lock the gates at Suomenlinna Prison – because people kept getting in

Finnish prisons don't operate in terror of what the Sun will say, meaning they can focus on rehabilitation.

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The gate at Suomenlinna Prison has defeated us. It’s usually left open but today it has been locked – because tourists kept wandering in. The prison sits at the southern tip of an island 20 minutes away from the Finnish capital, Helsinki. In May, as the snow is receding, the landscape has a brutal beauty. The grass is yellow, scorched by cold, and a stiff wind blows in from the Baltic Sea. The rest of the island holds a fortress that was designated a World Heritage Site in 1991; hence the tourists. Hence also the prison: it was established to provide free labour to repair and maintain the fortress.

Suomenlinna is an open prison that holds 100 men, a tenth of whom are lifers, and 28 staff. Last year I went to a British equivalent, Kirklevington Grange on Teesside, and the differences are immediately apparent.

There’s the open gate in the Finnish prison, for a start, and no ban on mobile phones or email addresses (though prisoners must request permission to use the internet). Instead of cell blocks, there are wood cabins, with proper cooking facilities and living rooms.

The hut we visit has a sauna, which seems like an incredible luxury until you realise that: a) visiting a sauna is close to a state religion in Finland, and b) the temperature here in winter reaches minus 15. Still, its presence reflects a cultural difference: put bluntly, Finnish prisons don’t operate in terror of what the Sun will say. Accordingly, Mika Peltola and the other officials from the Criminal Sanctions Agency who show me around say things such as: “A good social policy is the best criminal policy,” and “We don’t see prisoners just as prisoners, we also see them as citizens who need services.”

Helen Lewis

Back home, I call Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, to ask her what we could learn from the Finnish approach to prisons. “Empty them,” is her first answer. In a population of 5.5 million, Finland has just 3,100 prisoners. Britain has 12 times as many people, but 28 times as many prisoners, at 85,000. “When Finland was part of the Soviet [sphere of influence], it had a very high use of prisons,” Crook adds. “When that collapsed, the question was: do we want to carry on with that, or do we want to be Scandinavian? And one of the things the government felt made you Scandinavian was a low prison population. So they emptied the prisons – reduced sentences. When they did send people to prison, they could be more imaginative.”

That includes a greater focus on rehabilitation, learning new skills and treating drug and alcohol addiction. After serving two-thirds of their sentence, prisoners get regular 72-hour furloughs, and a 12-hour family meeting every month. They can earn €4 an hour, and go to the shops twice a week. Having more open prisons saves the state money: a place in one costs €160 a day, compared with €205 for a closed jail.

I talk to one of the prisoners, Steve*, who is British. After a decade living in Finland working as a blacksmith, he was convicted of smuggling Ecstasy and amphetamines from Germany and sentenced to six years and ten months in prison. “When I arrived, it was a blizzard,” he says. “The snow hurt my eyes. But they do care here; you’re not just a number.”

His day starts at 6am and he works repairing the walls of the fortress – whatever the weather – from 6.30am. When he finishes work in the afternoon, he catches the 4pm ferry to Helsinki for Finnish lessons. These will allow him to talk fluently to his three-year-old son, who lives with his former
fiancée an hour from the prison. He tells me that although he is looking forward to release, it also means he will not see his son again: he will be deported from Finland and not allowed into the country for eight years. “You’re free but not free,” is how he describes life in an open prison. “When I go to study, I have to stick to one route and the GPS tracker [on his ankle] can tell to within one metre.” Break the rules and you go back to a closed prison.

Steve is keen to counter any suggestion that all Finnish jails are as enlightened as Suomenlinna; in the closed prison where he was previously held, inmates would have their drinks spiked – and then get snitched on so they were called in for a urine test. As for an open jail not being a deterrent, he says that having a “taste of freedom” reminds him how much he hates being inside. “I go out every day and I come back and think: ‘I don’t want to do this again.’”

City of dreams

I’m in Helsinki at the invitation of the Finnish Tourist Board, because the country is celebrating its 100th birthday and wants to show off “Functional Finland”. I visit the population register (which could seem Orwellian, but actually just feels efficient); a power station whose waste water is used to heat a nearby district; and a psychiatrist who runs an online mental-health portal.

It’s an extraordinary place – Helsinki looks like St Petersburg, all big, boxy buildings and wide boulevards, but the atmosphere is completely different. It’s open where Russia felt closed: affluent, forward-looking and cosmopolitan, with free wifi everywhere. This, I reflect glumly, is what being a part of Europe has done for the Finns. By the way, everyone I meet thinks Brexit is mad.

Uneasy lies the head

There is one way in which Finland didn’t follow Europe’s example when it became independent in December 1917. Initially, it decided to have a monarchy and the parliament chose a German prince, Frederick Charles of Hesse. The country even designed a crown. But after the armistice was signed, the country changed its mind and in December 1918 the king-elect was forced to renounce his claim. He had never set foot in his kingdom.

* Name has been changed. Update: As Finland was never part of the Soviet bloc, although its policies were influenced by Russia, I've inserted parentheses in this quote.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain