Skip to content

Suomenlinna Island and Open Prisons

This past Wednesday I took a day trip to Suomenlinna, a fortress island off the southern coast of Helsinki. The island is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, dedicated to preserving the unique cultural and historic value and disseminating the information it holds to future generations.

The Swedish originally built the fortress in the 1700s, when Finland was still a part of Sweden. It was subsequently lost to the Russians in 1808 in the Swedish-Russian war, which saw Finland change hands again, becoming a Grand Duchy of Russia. The fortress remained under Russian control through the Crimean War – where it took heavy damage in 1855, and during the First World War where it served to protect the Russian capital of St. Petersburg.

Finland declared independence in 1917 and took control of Suomenlinna from the Russians the following year. It served the Finns through the Finnish Civil War, the Winter War, The Second World War, and the Continuation War.

Suomenlinna FortressSuomenlinna’s final military presence vacated in the 1960s and the island was turned over to the city of Helsinki. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991 and is currently classified as a borough of Helsinki. It houses 800 residents and employs roughly 400 people.

Visiting the island is a short 15-minute ferry ride from the city harbor. It’s much quieter in the winter months, many of the island’s eight museums are closed or offer limited hours and walking tours are only available on weekends. Regardless the island is well equipped with informational plaques, directional signs, and a bunch of sights. You can walk along the fortress walls and through the passageways between cannon ports. You can look through the ports out onto the ocean and try to imagine life here 300 years ago. It truly was fascinating.

Along the southern coast of the island, where you can find the majority of the preserved fortress walls and the “Kings Gate”, are a number of large berms that resembled Hobbit houses from the Shire in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit. They each only had a very small eight-by-four foot brick room. Their purpose wasn’t immediately clear but perhaps they served as shelter for soldiers on duty during the cold winter months.

The most surprising and fascinating part of the island I encountered had very little to do with the Fortress’ history and instead with Finland’s progressive nature. Along the recommended tourist walking-route, buried in a sea of directional signs for various attractions on the island was a sign that read “Suomenlinna Prison, 300 meters.” My initial thought was that this must be a preserved military prison from the period or during the war, so we took a turn off the beaten path and decided to check it out.

After walking a short distance off the beaten path and through what seemed to be modern apartment buildings with cars and bicycles out front we came across a small, waist-high yellow picket fence with a gate secured by a bungee cord. A small sign on the gate read “Suomenlinna Prison: No Entry”. Behind the fence were modern rancher style buildings, a field, a greenhouse, a beautiful view of the ocean, and nothing that even remotely resembled a prison. I turned to Julia and scratched my head. Where’s the prison?

As it turns out, the Suomenlinna prison isn’t a preserved relic of incarceration in the 18th century at all. Instead it’s a testament to the potential of correctional systems in the 21st century.

Suomenlinna prison is one of 13 “open” prisons in Finland, a concept implemented here in the 1960s after Nordic countries started doing research into the effectiveness of punishment and soon found it has a resoundingly underwhelming effect on rehabilitation and crime reduction.

Now, Finland has one of the lowest incarceration rates in Europe. Through an open prison system, they have reduced the cost per inmate and the reoffending rate by 30 and 20 percent respectively.

At Suomenlinna, prisoners “earn about $8 an hour, have cell phones, do their grocery shopping in town and get three days of vacation every couple of months” They also go on fishing trips, work in a greenhouse, and even earn stipends for pursuing a university degree. The quality of life of a prisoner in Finland is practically better than a student in Canada.

If you’re thinking that this prison houses only those inmates convicted of minor offenses, think again. Convicted murderers serving life sentences walk among you on Suomenlinna. Prisoners are often transferred there for the final months or years of their sentences. The concept is touted as a “halfway house” – to ease transition into regular life and help integrate long-serving criminals back into society.

Finland isn’t the only country integrating open prisons into their correctional system. Scotland and New Zealand operate similar facilities, and Norway even has an entire island dedicated to the concept.

Canada hasn’t adopted the open prison concept, and I’m not sure it will but I am convinced it is at the very least worth the consideration. Don’t let headlines about a Hell’s Angel member escaping a minimum-security prison scare you. But perhaps we should address the cost of our post secondary education system first, because I would hate to lose a job to a well-educated convicted murderer from Finland.