How Did Finland Become the Prison-Break Capital of Europe?

Dont try to break out of prison in Finland
Don't try to break out of prison in Finland | © geralt / Pixabay
Jessica Wood

The highly progressive country of Finland is known for having excellent human rights for prisoners. That’s largely responsible for them also having the lowest rates of incarceration in Europe. Yet this exact same system also means that Finland has the highest rates of prison breaks in Europe but isn’t prepared to do anything to stop it.

How Finland improved its prison record

Back in the 1960s, Finland had one of the highest rates of imprisonment in Europe. Researchers found that punishment had no correlation to reducing crime so they came up with a new solution: the open prison system.

Kakola, the abandoned prison which will soon be a hotel.

Open prisons are an extreme form of a minimum-security prison. Inmates aren’t kept under lock and key or watched over by guards 24 hours a day. Instead they work in the community for minimum wage, are free to walk around and shop in the local town, and even get short holidays and time at home with family. One third of prisoners in Finland now serve their time in open prisons.

Building of the Kuopio prison.

It may sound strange to treat criminals this way, yet Finland has found that it really does work to reduce crime statistics. By gradually re-integrating convicts back into society, their chances of re-offending drop by 20 percent, ending the cycle of prison and re-offending, which is seen in many other countries. Less security personnel also cost tax payers less, reducing the cost per inmate by a third. Thanks to this system, the amount of incarcerations in Finland has dropped by two thirds since the 1960s.

Prisoners in Finland often do maintenance work in the local community

Finland’s open prisons

At the Kerava prison a few miles north of Helsinki, inmates have a greenhouse and a small menagerie of animals. Once a year in the spring they open up the prison to the local community to pet the animals and sell their plants. The prisoners also make $8 an hour, have cell phones, do their shopping in the local village, have supervised fishing and camping trips, and can study at the local university. The detainees who work have to pay rent to the prison while those who choose to study receive a subsidy for it.

Even the Suomenlinna fortress, one of Finland’s most popular tourist attractions, is home to an open prison. The prison is on the same spot that once held a concentration camp during the Finnish Civil War, but today the prisoners work around the island, helping to maintain a national monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The prison is so integrated into the surroundings that most tourists don’t even realise it is there.

A view of the prison buildings at Suomenlinna

Making a break for it

This raises the question: if convicts in Finland are treated so well, why do so many of them try to break out? It is because as effective as the open prison system is, it does make it almost laughably easy for prisoners to escape.

The Atlas reports that in 2013 over one in 10 Finnish felons attempted to escape, almost double the number of the next highest country on the list. By comparison, 45 per 10,000 escaped from closed prisons in the same year. In the USA, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world, the number was only 10.5 per 10,000 according to CNBC.

Don’t try to break out of prison in Finland

So, if it is so easy, why aren’t all Finnish prisoners trying to escape? Because inmates know that they can easily escape if they want to, yet if they did, they would simply be caught by the authorities again and put back in prison, probably with more time on their sentence or maybe even moved to the maximum-security prison. Or else they would have to live in hiding with a much lower quality of life than they would have in prison.

If somebody wanted to escape from the Suomenlinna prison, for example, they would need to either buy a ticket for the ferry or arrange for a friend to pick them up with a boat. This would give the authorities plenty of time to notice they are missing and catch them again.

Even if Finland’s open prison system does have a major flaw to it, it does at least work for this Nordic nation and makes the country much safer.

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