Prison Island

Posted by editor 26/04/2013 0 Comment 6073 views
Suomenlinna in Finland.

Suomenlinna in Finland.

By Jenny McBain

Imagine an island populated by prisoners but light-years from the fortress regime of Alcatraz. It’s a place where offenders undertake meaningful work in pleasant surroundings without the iron limitations of locks and bars. This place
exists and it is in Finland.

Finding an alternative to the current UK prison system is a quest close to the hearts of many compassionate people.  Our current regime condemns many ex offenders to  a life of social exclusion or sets them firmly on a path towards becoming a career criminal.

As with many social issues, the Nordic countries take an enlightened approach to criminal justice and island prisons also operate in Norway. Afbi spoke to Samuli Siikarla, who works in the Finnish island prison called Suomenlinna.

How does the island prison run? Please can you describe how it looks, what happens there and what type of  prisoners are housed there?
The island prison doesn´t differ much from any other open prison in Finland. At the moment we have around 70 prisoners living in Suomenlinna due the renovation process. In normal state Suomenlinna prison houses up to 95 prisoners. Every prisoner has oblication to take part in activity (work/study/rehabilitation). Most of the prisoners work here in Suomenlinna island and Unesco World heritage site renovating and maintaining the fortress. Some prisoners have permission to work and study outside the prison area. Those prisoners work or study just as ordinary people, but they are under electronic surveillance and spend their evenings and nights at the prison.

Suomenlinna houses prisoners with various backgrounds and sentences. Usually prisoner sent to Suomenlinna is at the end of his prison term (from few months up to two years sentence left). The purpose of open prison is to rehabilitate prisoners to normal life and plan the time after imprisonment without crimes. During the time in open prison prisoners are given chance to manage for example their social and financial issues, so they have better chance to get out of the criminal way of life and adjust to society.

Our prison area is formed by wooden barracks, office building, dining room/ kitchen and control room building. I guess it does not look anything like what common people would think prison looks like. There are no barb wire fences or anything like that, because prisoners are monitored trough electronic surveillance system.

Where did the idea originate from and when did your place open?
Suomenlinna prison was opened in 1971 to support the renovation and maintainence of the historical Suomenlinna fortress.
I could not find information of where the idea orginated from, but I guess that prison labour was seen suitable and financially best option to perform labour intensive maintenance and renovating of the fortress.

What are the rates of re offending  and how do they compare with other more mainstream regimes?
I couldn´t find statistics but as the number of inmates moved to open prisons have grown rapidly in recent years. I have a feeling that the re offending rate is slightly lower than in closed prisons but as said I don´t have stats to support this.

Do inmates feel fortunate to be here?
After time served in closed prison inmates do feel fortunate to be here; sometimes though it can be confusing at first when there are no locks on doors or bars on windows.

What is your previous work experience within the penal system, what is your current job and how do you feel about it?
I have been working as correctional officer in Helsinki and Kerava prison (closed prisons) and Vantaa and Suomenlinna open prisons. My current job is to work as special instructor. I love working at Suomenlinna. I have great co-workers and atmosphere in here is more relaxed than in closed prisons. Every day is different and I enjoy the new challenges that I encounter daily.

What are the plans for the future of Suomenlinna?
Short term plan is to continue renewing the inmate barracks to meet the current standards. In long term we will continue to develop the system of electronically monitored trial freedoms and head for more efficient rehabilitation and pre releasing processes.

Highlands and Islands MSP Jean Urquhart (SNP) is inspired by the island prison concept. She says: “This could work really well in Scotland where we have lots of islands. We have got to stop confining people in buildings. It would be so much more constructive to give them meaningful work which will help them on their release back into society.”

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