Estonian prison investments twice smaller than in Finland

Viru vangla.

PHOTO: Liis Treimann

On pages of Iltalehti, Finnish parliamentarian Laura Huhtasaari said conditions in Estonian prisons were so bad that should Finnish sexual offenders sit behind Estonian bars, the environment would serve as additional disciplinary punishment. Postimees sought to specify the differences.

According to prison services’ data, Estonia currently has 2,756 inmates, and Finland has about 3,100. At that, prison system costs in Finland are over three times higher. Even when considering the difference in living standards and cost of living, investments in Finland into inmates are about twice the Estonia’s.

As noted by justice ministry press rep Maria-Elisa Tuulik, the Finnish state spends significantly larger amounts on employment of inmates. «Regrettably, the labour by prisoners is not profitable in any nations with market economy,» she admitted. «Creating the conditions for work, the training of the prisoners, and organising the work in prison require significantly higher investments than outside prison walls.»

Ms Tuulik said that from a certain level large-scale investments into prisons may prove ineffective, as has happened in Finland. She said that the Finnish investments into training costs are actually much less beneficial than in Estonia.  

«That’s because the training of prisoners is low and the numbers of minimal-skilled people limited,» explained Ms Tuulik. «Thus, the state first has to train the prisoners for dear money to make them work, and afterwards employ additional officials who will watch the prisoners while working and search them.»

Ms Tuulik thinks the advantage of Estonian prison system is the professional risk assessment system applied, and most effective use of existing resources.

«Simply put: more effort is exerted with people who, judging by their past and work done till today, may be deemed more dangerous and with whom repeated crimes are more likely,» she said regarding how the money is used.

Comparing consumer price indexes, as characterising cost of living, it was 67.61 in Estonia and 101.95 in Finland – 1.51 times higher in Finland. Considering this, Finland is investing about twice the amount of Estonia into its prisons system.

Small prisons abound

Continuing the comparison, Finland differs with the remarkably large amount of prisons. While Estonia totals four prisons, Finland finances 16 for an equal amount of inmates. Thus, Finnish prisons have more room per inmate – which equals higher costs for labour and real estate maintenance.

«Truly, an important difference is that the Finns have erected lots of small prisons where the inmates/officials ratio totally differs from ours,» confirmed Ms Tuulik.

Though Estonia could not afford such a system of small prisons, said Ms Tuulik, our system is equally effective and simply works differently.

«The Estonian way is that a large prison wall includes smaller prisons or units,» said Ms Tuulik. «As an inmate arrives, he will be placed in a definite unit where, as a rule, he spends his total time in jail. Thus, these same officials constantly deal with the person, and get to know him more thoroughly.» Ms Tuulik said this is an effective way to plan the inmate’s punishment time and quickly react to his infringements.

Justice ministry is not planning new prisons near-term and the press rep said that as the Tallinn Prison is completed, the overall number comes down to three.

Daily routine similar

In Finland and Estonia alike, each inmate gets an individual schedule intended to plan his time during the punishment and lower the risk of repeated crimes. Also, officials determine his educational level, working ability and skills, and appoint his location within the prison. Unlike Estonia, Finnish system considers wishes of prisoners and residence of family members when determining their placement.

During imprisonment, it is considered important that the inmate not lose contact to society. Therefore, both Estonia and Finland allow short trips and meetings with close relatives. In Estonia, trips outside may be applied for a maximum of 21 days a year, having first served a year in the prison. In Finland, they require that half the prison term is expired before they can apply for a visit outside. Prison services data shows that persons with life sentences are not allowed outside the territory.   

Still, Finland is more lax with letting inmates outside. For instance, with minor offences the Finns allow prisoners to obtain vocational education or work outside the prison. In Estonia, this mostly happens within the prison walls. Finnish prison service data says 40 percent of inmates use the option to study or work outside the prisons.

To ensure the inmates retain the habit of working, they are usually made to do chores in prisons. «They are usually used in cleaning, helping in the kitchen and food distribution, repairs, waste treatment, washing the laundry, hairdressing and help in libraries,» says the prison service website. In both nations, prisoners either have to study or work while doing their time.

The Finnish prisons are also more lenient with meeting relatives. Both countries allow inmates to call loved ones at certain times during the day, but in Finland they are able to use own phones says the website.  

As evident in the videos illustrating the Finnish prison system, the inmates live two in a cell where they are able to listen to the radio and watch TV, and cook their own food. The cooking option is absent in Estonia, as food is taken to cells in appointed times. Our inmates do have the opportunity to entertain themselves with radio and TV, but for that they have to pay with money earned while working. Meanwhile, Estonian prison systems thinks about the future with 20 percent of inmates’ income goes to a «freedom fund» and is only handed to them as they are released.

Both Estonia and Finland allow open prison option with minor offences, where they have more freedom to move about and communicate with fellow-prisoners.