This summer I was fortunate to visit Finland. I heard about their experiment in reducing incarceration so I took the opportunity to find out more.
Mr. Jari Lohi, the head of Finish prisons, apologized for possibly offending me, but wanted to say that while President Bush talks about human rights, U.S. practice gives lie to this principle. His job, he stated, is to make sure that human rights are, in fact, observed in Finland.
He sees prison as part of society, “criminal policy stems from social policy.” He continued, “people who come into the system have dropped out of society, they have social problems, such as drug use.”
The national conversation about how to deal with social problems started in Finland in the 70s. Finland launched a large number of reforms that reduced the number of offenders brought to trial and the numbers of imprisoned. The “crime” of public drunkenness was removed from the criminal code, as was refusing conscription into the military for religious beliefs. They changed statutes on larceny and drunk driving. They increased use of conditional prison sentences based on a growing conviction that imprisonment decreases the offenders’ chance of adapting to society. Judges attended seminars on new sentencing procedures, imposing more fines, for example, rather than prison time. Over the period of 15 years Finland cut their prison population from about 8,000 to 2,000.
The current prison administration’s number one task is to reduce recidivism and break off the cycle of social exclusion, which causes crime. To that effect, they count the prisoners differently?each prisoner, rather than each admission to prison. They found that while 70% of admissions are repeat offenders, they comprise only 30% of prisoners. Having better data about the scope of the problem, Finland is now developing individual sentence plans, especially for those whose sentences are over 2 years.
Prisoners are encouraged to acknowledge their problems and acquire skills that will help them “stay out of trouble.” About 1/3 of prisoners serve time in “open” prisons: you spend the night in prison, but go outside everyday to your job and your life. 40% of prisoners work 8 hours a day and are compensated prevailing wages. 60% participate in some activities (work, drug treatment programs, education, etc.)
Mr. Jari Lohi said they would like to treat the “disease”, why people are anti-social, not just the symptoms: drug use, violent fights, etc. They really believe in rehabilitation. The success of their approach is to make people fit into their society.
But prisons are one way in which the difference between the “society” and the individual is made manifest. Here, prisoners in their concrete struggles whether for decent health care, or food, or “ban the box”?the campaign by former prisoners to remove the “Have you been convicted” box on job applications?are demanding that they be recognized as human! I see this as a part of a process of changing society so that society does not remain an abstraction opposed to the individual, but that each individual is the social entity and that each participates as a self-reflective part of the whole.
Charisse Shumate called this becoming a “we” person, instead if an “I” person. In her article for the first Fire Inside, she questioned in her own way the whole self-alienating concept that isolates individuals as egos under capitalism and reduces them to the status of things. She said, “for those who ask why they should care [about women prisoners] or believe we are asking for ‘Cadillac care’, … [how] sad [it] is [that] we are compared to a car. Is it because they forgot we are human?”
What the prisoners, and former prisoners, are challenging is the conception of society, of the “we” that excludes them, that is opposed to them as individuals, that leaves their “I” out. Capitalism does this to everybody, but it is from prisoners that the challenge to what society is comes forth explicitly. This is the lesson that can help us get more than prison reform, a whole new society!