What It’s Like to Visit an Open Prison in Finland

Going to prison isn’t something I want to do in my travels. However, if that event does ever occur, I’d want it to be in an open prison, and preferably one in Finland.

The concept of an open prison was completely foreign to me before I left the US. My reality was that America had one-quarter of the world’s incarcerated population, and recidivism (returning to prison after release) was ridiculously high. That’s not the case in Finland, where only 0.06% of the country is in prison (compared to 0.8% in America).

Within the city limits of Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Suomenlinna Island. Aside from a massive fortress, a toy museum, a brewery and a WWII sub, the island also has the Suomenlinna Prison.

Suomenlinna Prison Grounds #1

Several of the 27 prisons in Finland have the distinction of being open prisons, of which Suomenlinna Prison is one. But what is an open prison? I learned firsthand in a rather unique way.

While in Helsinki, I went off on my own to explore Suomenlinna Island. Having seen the fortress and other tourist spots, I started wandering along the beach. After a few minutes, a man sitting on a bench asked me for my name. I said I was Skye, and asked him for his name. He gave it and then asked me if I was a prisoner. I said, “no, are you?” thinking he was joking. I certainly wasn’t expecting his honest answer. “Yes!”

Suomenlinna Prisoner #6

As it turns out, I had inadvertently walked into the Suomenlinna Open Prison. I spent a couple hours talking with the prisoner, learning about the conditions of the prison and how they helped to rehabilitate inmates and set them up to return to society as moral men. This particular prison housed up to 100 men, paid them €8 ($10) an hour to clean the facilities or help with gardening (from which they paid for their berthing) had liberties like supervised camping trips, etc.

Usually, when I recount this story, the first question I’m asked is “If you can get in so easily, can’t they get out?” Yes. That’s the point. They can go shopping in town, study at the local university, and sometimes even get a job or a place to sleep in town after months of good behavior. They are tracked by an ankle bracelet and have to check in with the warden. Beyond that, they’re treated as humans under rehabilitation. The success rate? As far as I can find, recidivism figures in Finland are as low as 20%, compared to nearly 70% in the US.

Recently, I read that tourists wandering into the prison became such a problem that the warden had to lock the gate, which usually stayed open for easy entrance and exit. However, the prisoners are still not limited to their basic human right of the freedom of movement. They’re simply restricted on committing further crimes while rehabilitating their self-respect, pride and value to society. Now that’s the way to do it!

Suomenlinna Prison Entrance #3

So yeah, I can say I spent an afternoon in a Finnish Prison, just not as an inmate. I’m glad I did, as now I know just how good a prison system can get.

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