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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.

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

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Jude Kelly’s Diary: From train travel through 80s Russia to buses around Britain

Our misunderstanding of Russia, in some ways, is just as great now as it was at the time of Chernobyl.

It was strange on Friday, heading off from lunch with Misha Glenny, writer of McMafia, and landing in Moscow the same evening. Misha and I spent most of our time reminiscing about his father, the renowned translator and Russian expert Michael Glenny. He and I travelled right across Russia together in 1986 accompanied by the then science editor of Pravda Vladimir Gubarev, the first journalist to set foot in Chernobyl. So great was Gubarev’s horror at what he had uncovered that he exiled himself to his dacha for months and wrote his first play, Sarcophagus, set in Hospital No 1, where all the patients, scientists, firemen, engineers and building contractors reveal to each other the massive corruption and moral culpability that led to the devastating event and their own inevitable deaths.

It was early glasnost days and all could be said, nothing was censored. The play caused shock waves right across the Soviet system and I’d been asked to direct it by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I stood in the office of the literary department in Stratford open-mouthed as Michael Glenny’s vivid translation came rolling off the fax machine, revealing the unbearable mix of human stupidity and venal desire that placed the world in such danger.

This led to our train journeys, criss-crossing the snowy landscape, to research the piece, as Michael and Vladimir gave me a crash course in Russian history while smuggling vodka into railway carriages to cope with that short-lived and doomed alcohol ban that was one initiative of perestroika. I returned to direct the play, which I’m proud to say was nominated for an Olivier award. But one thing I think we’ve all learned, and as Misha illustrated over lunch, is that our misunderstanding of Russia, in some ways, is just as great now
as it was at the time of Chernobyl.

Thawing relations

I was in Russia by invitation of the British Council, giving speeches to artists and cultural leaders about the power of culture to help us build the necessary shared understandings and beliefs. Earnest conversations but also jokes, enthusiasm, great food and no shortage of vodka reinforces that people are very different from political states.

I hate cold weather, but I went almost straight from Russia to Ottawa. Minus ten degrees. Then Banff – minus 15! The trip was partly driven by conversations with Canadian artists about climate change. The global Earth Summit happens in 2020: governments are gathering to review environmental policy and I’d been approached to curate an international festival bringing together many of the extraordinary artists and scientists working in the field. We’d met many of them during our investigation last year of the Nordic regions for Southbank Centre’s Nordic Matters festival. Canada has equally powerful thinkers: these conversations are no longer of “fringe” interest. As part of my research, in August I’ll travel to the Arctic region to meet up with artists there. More cold! Brrr!

Coaching by coach

Yesterday, I was in my hometown of Liverpool for a meeting about a new British charity that Richard Collier-Keywood and I have co-founded called Drivers for Change. Me, arts; him, business. It’s directly inspired by an Indian charity, Jagriti Yatra, that takes 400 18- to 26-year-olds on a train journey around their own country looking at social enterprise projects and giving them the knowledge and skills to return to their own communities and make change happen.

I went for several years, supporting these enthusiastic millennials. But although I loved seeing what was being done in Bangalore or Thilonia, I was struck by the knowledge that back home in Sunderland, Port Talbot or Weston-super-Mare there are brilliant examples of change to learn from, and huge problems that need innovative approaches and courage to tackle. This June, we’re inviting 100 young recruits (80 British and 20 from overseas) from all backgrounds to travel through the UK, stopping in nine towns and cities to learn from and inspire others. It launches in Liverpool on 22 June during the International Business Festival, and although it’s buses and not a romantic locomotive, we have high hopes that it will produce a cohort whose actions and energy will make a real difference.

Watching the love tug

We live beside the canal in Shoreditch, east London, and have noticed a major escalation in epic silliness. At least once a week through December and January, groups of people immersed in hot water in a large plastic blow-up bath – known as the “Love Tug” – have floated past, drinking champagne. As I write, with the faux chimney of the tug steaming away and bursts of immodest laughter tinkling across the water, one group has just drifted under our windows. Wearing nautical hats and little else, many look like stag or hen dos. What a barmy start to married life.

Goodbye Southbank, hello world

Women of the World Festival (WOW) is in Kathmandu this weekend for its second year there – the youngest, poorest democracy with some of the most powerful women and girl campaigners you could ever meet. I have just announced that after 12 years, I’ll be leaving the Southbank Centre to build WOW into a wider global movement. Over eight years we’ve developed these festivals, which speak with candour about every aspect of women’s lives in 30 places, over five continents. It’s proved a hugely compelling project for me to devote more time to.

This month’s celebrations of women’s achievements in getting voting rights was gratifying but WOW aims to celebrate girls and women all year round. Celebration creates optimism, and optimism gives us the stamina to face up to the tough stuff and keep going. You have to build fun into life wherever possible… For me, it’s essential. 

WOW Women of the World festival will be held at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, from 7-11 March

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist