From Jim Gilliam's blog archives
Are prisons immoral? ... or is it just Americans?

August 15, 2004 11:28 AM

Here's one for the challenging assumptions pile: Are prisons immoral?

Can we imagine the practice of coercive confinement withering away entirely? Will it ever follow barbarous punishments like maiming, flogging and hanging into extinction?

If the very idea seems hopelessly utopian, consider a real-world case: Finland. Three decades ago, the Finns had a severe penal system modeled on that of the neighboring Soviet Union, and one of the highest imprisonment rates in Europe. Then they decided to rethink penal policy along more humane lines. Finnish prisons became almost ridiculously lenient by our standards. Inmates -- referred to as ''clients'' or ''pupils,'' depending on their age -- live in dormitory-style rooms, address guards by the first name and get generous home leaves. ''We believe that the loss of freedom is the major punishment, so we try to make it as nice inside as possible,'' one prison supervisor commented. Today, Finland imprisons the smallest fraction of its population of any European country (52 prisoners per 100,000 people, compared with 702 in the United States). Yet its crime rate, far from exploding, has remained at a low level.

For more on Finland's penal system, here's a 2003 NY Times article. It has a reputation for zero corruption and the police solve 90% of the serious crimes. California can't say that.

Tapio Lappi-Seppala, director of the National Research Institute of Legal Policy, "asserted that over the last two decades, more than 40,000 Finns had been spared prison, $20 million in costs had been saved, and the crime rate had gone down to relatively low Scandinavian levels."

One long-time "client": "Well, many people do come to prison to take a break and try to get better again."

More from the archive in Crime and Punishment.

Are prisons immoral? ... or is it just Americans? (08.15.2004)

Next Entry: WaPo: Younger Voters Rapidly Deserting Bush (08.15.2004)
Previous Entry: Bush's war on the middle class (08.14.2004)

Read the 2 comments.

Dave Andersen:

This is a pollyannish view of Finland. The crime rate is low to begin with. It has a homogeneous
population -- no immigrants, no outsiders, strict
controls on who is admitted. The alcoholism rate
is appalling. Like other Scandanavian countries
a relatively high suicide rate. I lived there for a year and love the Finns; the low crime rate is true of all of the "northern" peoples. There is no ethnic strife, no defense budget -- thus big
money is spent on social programs. Americans would not put up with the restrictions on personal freedom in these socialist democracies.
You can't cut a tree without government approval.

Sun Aug 15 2004 5:27 PM

Rowan Santanen:

I don't know what area of Finland you lived in, Dave, but I live in the southern part and there ARE immigrants and lots of them. Yes, the suicide and drinking rates are very high and Finland has some of the worst car accidents I have ever seen, but I feel safer here than anywhere else I have been in the world. Here, I am not afraid of the police and they are people I would WANT to go to for help. Where I lived in America, the police were the last people I would ask for assistance. Also, Finland may have a lot of rules to follow, but never once have I felt that my 'personal freedom' has been stifled. In fact, I feel more liberated HERE than I did in America. There isn't really a need for organisations like the ACLU in Finland, and if that means I "can't cut a tree without government approval," then so be it.

Tue Aug 31 2004 5:52 AM

Jim Gilliam
Jim Gilliam


Add to My Yahoo!

Last week's soundtrack:

jgilliam's Weekly Artists Chart