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Finland: new women's prison to let inmates cook, use internet

Miia Jokinen mows the lawn next to the Hämeenlinna women’s prison in Southern Finland while a security guard monitors her progress. Jokinen is serving her first jail sentence at the prison and has eight months to go before she is released. She admits that adjusting to freedom can be challenging.

“Of course, adapting to life after prison has its own challenges. It helps if you get into an open facility to reintegrate into normal life early on,” Jokinen reflected.

Across the street, the construction of the new Hämeenlinna women’s prison is on schedule, with authorities planning to transfer inmates there in October 2020. They say conditions of the new facility, which will cost about 34 million euros, are better suited to promote independence. Authorities aim to encourage inmates to take more responsibility for their life in the future.

“This way, we get new opportunities. We’ll be able to prepare for our life ahead and maybe get better direction. At least, those of us who want it,” said Jokinen.

Inmates to wash their own laundry, shovel snow

Former inmates often have a hard time adjusting to everyday life outside prison walls. One advantage of the new prison model is that inmates will have better opportunities to practice dealing with routine tasks, officials say.

“Inmates are encouraged to become more self-reliant, independent and responsible. They will tend to an allotted plot of land, shovel snow from their ward’s yard in winter and gradually begin cooking and washing their laundry,” said Petri Niemelä, development manager of the Criminal Sanctions Agency, an organisation that helps former inmates adjust to life outside prison.

The wards are designed in such a way that the traditionally long corridors are replaced with spaces where inmates can prepare their own food while being easily monitored by security guards.

Limited access to online digital services

Former inmates that are familiar with digital services find it easier to integrate into society after their release. Every cell in the new prison will have a tablet with limited access to the internet. Inmates will not be able to browse the web outside of the permitted websites.

“We’ll be able to fill in online forms and connect with the prison staff. We will receive a list of websites that we’re allowed to use independently as per the rehabilitation program,” said Jokinen.

The aim is to prevent former inmates from returning to prison

Half of the former inmates in Finland return to a life of crime and are imprisoned again within five years. According to Johanna Huhtala, executive director of assisted living provider Sininauha, which helps former inmates in Pori, Western Finland, where the alarming rate of recidivism indicates that too many recently released inmates have no support system in place and lack the skills to manage everyday tasks.

The Hämeenlinna Prison currently holds 36 cells. In addition to the closed wards, it has a family ward that accommodates remand prisoners with children less than two years old.

The new facility is designed to house a hundred cells. To Jokinen, this seems reasonable.

“As inmates, we spend a huge amount of time here. It’s good that we can focus on self-development. It will be great for the future,” she said.

“This is no boarding house”

The conditions of the new prison have invited stunned reactions from the public. Jokinen stresses that despite the reforms, the facility will be closed off and prison cell doors will remain locked.

“This is a correctional facility and will remain so. Of course, the framework is changing,” she says.

Some members of the public have opined that inmates are not deserving of the congenial conditions offered by the new prison. “Now that doesn’t feel nice,” Jokinen said, in reaction to the comments.

“The new prison will not have any bars, but it will have fences, surveillance cameras and other security equipment,” the Deputy Director of Hämeenlinna Prison, Jarmo Haavisto, clarified. Niemelä dismisses claims that the new facility will be a luxury prison.

“This is no boarding house.**We simply aim to boost inmate independence in all activities. It is important not only for the inmates’ future, but also for the benefit of every taxpayer,”** he said.

The new prison will also render Hämeenlinna Prison’s traditional cells without toilet facilities obsolete. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) and the parliamentary ombudsman of Finland have both criticised the presence of these old-fashioned cells.

Jokinen will be released in spring and says that she is looking forward to life beyond prison.

“I can turn my life around,” she said.

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