Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Soft Time in Finland

May 9th, 2011 · 1 Comment

Buried in this account of a Rwandan-born, Kansas-based octogenarian who may be a genocidaire is an interesting tidbit regarding Finnish jurisprudence:

Mr. Kobagaya did not come to the United States government’s attention until December 2007, when he agreed to testify as a defense witness on behalf of a former neighbor, Francois Bazaramba, in a trial in Finland. Mr. Bazaramba was facing charges that he had organized the genocide in Birambo. Finnish prosecutors tipped off American officials about Mr. Kobagaya’s testimony, which showed he was in Rwanda during the genocide, not Burundi. (Last summer, Mr. Bazaramba was convicted on genocide charges and sentenced to life in a Finnish prison.)

There is something slightly dissonant about the phrase “Finnish prison,” perhaps because Finland’s penal system is so famously easygoing. This 2003 piece makes the case that life in a Finnish correctional facility ain’t half bad:

Walls and fences have been removed in favor of unobtrusive camera surveillance and electronic alert networks. Instead of clanging iron gates, metal passageways and grim cells, there are linoleum-floored hallways lined with living spaces for inmates that resemble dormitory rooms more than lockups in a slammer.

Guards are unarmed and wear either civilian clothes or uniforms free of emblems like chevrons and epaulettes. ”There are 10 guns in this prison, and they are all in my safe,” Mr. Aaltonen said.

”The only time I take them out is for transfer of prisoners.”

At the ”open” prisons, inmates and guards address each other by first name. Prison superintendents go by nonmilitary titles like manager or governor, and prisoners are sometimes referred to as ”clients” or, if they are youths, ”pupils.”

”We are parents, that’s what we are,” said Kirsti Njeminen, governor of the Kerava prison that specializes in rehabilitating young offenders like Mr. Syvajarvi.

Generous home leaves are available, particularly as the end of a sentence nears, and for midterm inmates, 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.

”We believe that the loss of freedom is the major punishment, so we try to make it as nice inside as possible,” said Merja Toivonen, a supervisor at Hameenlinna.

I by no means think that America’s penal system should be similarly cozy. But I am curious to know more about how Finland’s style of incarceration, which began in the early-to-mid-1990s, has affected the nation’s crime rate. One thing I do know right off the bat, and which may raise some issues: Finland has an unusually high homicide rate, especially in its northern provinces.


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One Comment so far ↓

  • Boursin

    Might as well comment on this too.

    1) The prison featured in the NY Times is not one of those where the Finnish lifers are. Genocidal Mr. Bazaramba, for instance, is in Helsinki Prison, which was built in 1881 and is a quite stereotypical-looking place in comparison, although still significantly different from a corresponding prison in the US.

    2) I don’t know where you got the information that the change “began in the early-to-mid-1990s”. In fact the turn in policy started around 1970 and was already completed by 1990. Anyway, here are the annual homicide rates in Finland per 100,000 males (miehet) and females (naiset) from 1754 onwards:


    As you can see, in recent years they’ve been among the lowest in history. (Until around 1850, the figures are patchy, and according to historians’ best estimates, the real rates were higher by around 30% to 50% then.) For most recent years, the male rate has been below 3.00, which it was previously for only four years (1959 and 1964-66) throughout the entire 20th century. The current rate is still approximately double that of Sweden, but now roughly comparable to a “sleepy” US state such as Iowa or North Dakota.

    I should add that alcohol is involved in these homicides to such a huge extent that it may be hard for a foreigner to even imagine. In Finland, only a tiny handful of cases each year are sexual murders, murders for financial gain, or anything of that sort; the majority are an alcoholic killing a good drinking buddy with a knife, or an alcoholic killing an alcoholic spouse with a knife. In around 70% of all homicides in Finland, BOTH the killer and the victim are drunk, and in no less than 85%, one of the two is drunk! As I have often said myself, no threat of prison or other punishment will have much of an effect while you can’t even pronounce “prison” or “punishment”.