NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

No Gates or Armed Guards at Finland's Prisons

January 2, 2003

Americans probably wouldn't recognize a Finnish prison if they visited one. To begin with, they are rare -- since Finland has an incarceration rate of just 52 prisoners per 100,000 population -- compared to a U.S. rate of 702 per 100,000. That is also the lowest prison rate among European Union countries.

Just what does a Finnish prison look like?

  • There are no front gates, and walls and fences have been replaced by unobtrusive surveillance cameras and electronic alert networks.
  • Inmates' cells look like college dormitory rooms.
  • Guards are unarmed and wear either civilian clothes or uniforms free of emblems such as chevrons or epaulets -- and prisoners and guards are on a first-name basis.
  • Generous home leave is available, particularly for prisoners nearing the end of their sentence -- while for others, there are houses on the grounds with privacy assured, where they can spend up to four days at a time with visiting spouses and children.

The guiding philosophy is that loss of freedom is the major punishment.

Finnish courts mete out four general punishments -- a fine, a conditional sentence which amounts to probation, community service and an unconditional sentence. Even this last category is made less harsh by a practice of letting prisoners out after only half their term is served.

Finnish officials like their system, but readily admit that it wouldn't necessarily work for other countries.

Source: Warren Hoge, "Caught Red-Handed? Let It Be in Finland," New York Times, January 2, 2003.


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