This is the post you’ve all been waiting for. I’ll finally answer why I was in a Finnish prison for an afternoon in Helsinki. Just to be clear, I wasn’t the prisoner.
Honestly, I don’t know if I should be writing this post. I might get in trouble. But if I get sent to prison for it, I’ll be happy if it’s in Finland. That cover photo is the prison grounds.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is actually a group of six interconnected islands lying to the southeast of downtown Helsinki (still in the city limits). Originally built nearly 300 years ago as a fortress against the Russians, it failed in 1808 when the Russians captured it and invaded Finland the following year. Now it still has the ruins of the fortress with a network of underground tunnels, parapets, stunning views, museums, Finland’s last surviving submarine and even a British flower garden. Every day you can watch two enormous ferries pass by the island on their way from Helsinki to Stockholm. The islands are considered to be the most beautiful part of Helsinki, which in itself is my second favorite city in the world (after Edinburgh). Read more about Helsinki here.
It’s also home to the Suomenlinna Prison.
My Afternoon in a Finnish Prison
My own story begins with a trip to Suomenlinna Island, just a short ferry ride from Helsinki’s Market Square (€5 for a round-trip ticket). I now remember the night before when my Couchsurfing host mentioning something about a prison on the island, but it didn’t fully register at the time.
After I arrived on the island, I soon wandered off the beaten path, as I am wont to do. I pushed through a field of tall grass and bushes, climbed down boulders to get to the water and started walking along the shore. Further on, I scaled up a fortress wall, jumped over a low fence and started walking around the grassy field there, admiring the stunning view of the surrounding islands.
A couple minutes later I saw a man sitting on a wooden bench enjoying the sun. I approached and he asked me what my name was. I said Skye and asked him for his name. He gave it and then asked a very unusual question.
“Are you a prisoner?”
“No. Are you?” I asked.
“Umm…where am I?”
He laughed. “Don’t you know you’re in a prison?”
I thought he was joking.
Nope. Turns out those fences by the water were meant to keep me out, and the fence I jumped really did mean off limits. If I could get in, wouldn’t that mean that prisoners could get out? Well, they could. And did. But they would return every night, and for good reason. Who would want to leave?
What ensued was the most fascinating discussion about the Suomenlinna Finnish Prison. He told me about his conviction and sentence in the prison. Or should I say life on a UNESCO World Heritage island! I won’t go into his personal details, but the rest is almost unbelievable. In fact, I didn’t really believe it. I’ve since been researching his facts online, most of which I’ve been able to vindicate. The only one I can’t confirm is the €10,000 a year salary he receives in the prison. (SEE UPDATE BELOW)
Yup, you heard me right. 10,000 Euro!!! While I can’t confirm the veracity of this, I did find a website to confirm another fact. While in this Finnish prison, he works for an hour a day mopping the floors in the prison. For this, he gets paid €800 a month. That’s €9600 a year. Maybe that was the €10,000 he was referring to.
It gets better. Like I said, prisoners could come and go when they wanted to. They are fitted with an ankle tracker and are allowed to do almost anything they want (per him). With an approved petition, they can get a job in town, study at the university or help the community in some other way. They only are not allowed to go to parties and clubs or engage in any harmful activities, drinking, etc. And they have to be at the prison every night to sleep. At least for the first year, after which they can even petition to rent an apartment in town.
I asked him how long his sentence was and he said three years. He had been in the prison already for a year, so I said he had two years to go. Nope. In Finland, first-time offenders only serve half their sentence before they are released.
To all intents and purposes, he was living the life. But that’s the point. Finnish prisons have a program to transition prisoners back into society. With only 3200 prisoners in the entire country, they must be doing something right! I can’t help but compare them to the United States, which has nearly 25% of the entire incarcerated population on the planet. The freest nation? Really? To make that clear, 3200 prisoners out of Finland’s population of 5.4 million is 0.06% (6 per 1000). In the USA, 2.5 million prisoners out of a population of 319 million are 0.8% (80 per 1000), thirteen times greater!
After publishing this post, I received a letter back from the prisoner! It validates most of the information, and corrects the datum I was uncertain about. Here’s his letter to me (edited to remove typos and personal details):
“The salary they are paying for prisoners is around €800 a month. That’s €9600 a year like you wrote, but that is all the money we get. My job is really the easiest of all. Like I told you about an hour a day. And then the rest of the time (like 7 hours) I´m just “ready” to help on call if the guards have something extra they need. Usually they don’t have anything. However all the others here (about 80 prisoners) have to work outside in construction works (Suomenlinna walls) to keep this UNESCO heritage site in a good condition for tourists. And of course some go outside to work or study. At the Suomenlinna wall they have to really work full hours (8 hour a day) for their salary. But as I told you my case is really different because God is with me and His Favor is upon my LIFE!!! No matter if I’m in prison or where ever, I’m just enjoying my life in its FULLNESS WITH GOD!!! Hihihi!
“How it works here is really a lot about how you behave and what kind of sentence you have. I mean for permits to go outside to study or work. And this is called an open kind of prison where they transfer those prisoners who are not so dangerous. Then we also have real closed prisons where everybody stays in all the time and no one can wander in randomly. 😉 When it comes to a petition to rent an apartment in town, it is possible 6 months before your sentence is about to end. So in my case, a 3-year sentence and as a first timer, only half of it (1.5 years), so after one year I have the possibility for the last six months to rent an apartment if I like and if authorities will approve it here.
“One more great thing we have here is HOLIDAYS! Once a month in this prison, everyone gets a 12-hour holiday to go where they want!!! At the end of the sentence they give us a 72-hour holiday for every 2 months period!!! It is possible to use in many parts also. And they are even giving travelling hours as extra. For example if I go to my home town to see my family on my holiday, I will get 21 hours just for travelling!! So 72 hours + 21 hours for travelling = 93 hours holiday! THIS IS SO AMAZING!!!! But I have to tell you this is the only open kind of prison in Finland who has this kind of holiday possibilities. All other open prisons are only welcoming prisoners’ family & friends to visit a prisoner inside of prison premises.”
So that was my afternoon. After our talk I let myself out the same way I got in. He said I could walk out the front gates since the guards were (per him) more interested in watching movies than keeping people in or out. I was still in a strong state of disbelief and not ready to put his information to the test. Being incarcerated is definitely not on my bucket list. But if it ever does happen, I know what country I want to be in! This Finnish prison must be the best place in the world to be…well, not locked up, just partially confined. The view alone is worth it. Sort of.
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Fabulous story, I didn’t want it to end.
Can’t quite believe this but OK lol! Seriously though, it sounds all a bit bonkers but it clearly…works?!
It was hard for me to believe too! I wish I had recorded the whole conversation for a fantastic podcast. There are a couple other blog posts on-line about it, but not in nearly as much detail, although one mentions wandering in to the cafeteria and eating with the inmates, thinking they were eating the UNESCO cafe!
Lol, awesome stuff! This is the reason we write stories on our blogs and these are the reasons why we travel 🙂
Loved it and will share it 🙂
Jorge from http://www.couplertw.com
Thank you so much! I couldn’t agree more. Can’t wait more more adventures like this. Looking forward to the continued sharing.
Hahahahahahahahahahaaaa! Oh man. Could have been way worse but that is funny. I was on the island last year when I visited and had zero clue there was a prison!
It really is beautiful there. When I was writing my post, I ran across another blogger who did a similar thing when he was trying to find a cafe on the island and ended up eating in the dining room of the prison. https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/europe-scandinavia-the-nordics/topics/visiting-suomenlinna-prison
Great story! Such a refreshing change from all of the other travel pieces out there!
Thanks! I really had a fun time writing this too. Maybe the only truly enjoyable prison story. ?
WOW! What a crazy fun travel story! I think this is my favorite ever. I’m going to share this incredible story.
Thank you so much! I have to say it was also my most enjoyable to write, not to mention one of my favorite experiences this year. I just wish I had recorded the whole conversation. Would have made a great podcast. Maybe I’ll have to “wander” in again someday.