The humane prisons of Finland

November 11, 2020 • 2:00 pm

I’ve maintained that becoming a determinist leads many people to promote criminal-justice and prison reform. This comes from realizing that people have no choice in their actions—including committing crimes—and so criminals should be treated as if they were broken machines to be fixed (if possible) rather than as “people who made the wrong choice.” Readers have responded that promoting prison reform can also come from non-deterministic world views, and that’s true. But I believe that “hard” determinism, not sullied by the semantic taints of compatibilism, leads more automatically and naturally to criminal justice reform.

Well, you might disagree, but that’s not important for today’s post. I think most of us will agree that American prisons are cruel, inhumane, and do a lousy job of rehabilitating prisoners. That’s largely, I suspect,  because American prisons are directed more toward punishment than rehabilitation, and what you learn in prison is how to commit more crimes.

But here’s a country where prisoners are treated much more humanely: Finland. And here’s the story of one Finnish murderer who’s serving a long sentence but appears to be on the path of reformation. As the video claims, the recidivism rate in Finland (re-imprisonment within two years after release) is half of what it is in America. If you see the environment experienced by Finnish prisoners, and the efforts made to treat them humanely and reform them, that makes sense.

If someone can really be turned into a good and useful citizen, very unlikely to do any more crime, why should they be kept in jail under horrible conditions? You may say—and some will—that “the U.S. is not Finland.” But why can’t it be in the ways shown below?

64 thoughts on “The humane prisons of Finland

  1. Yes, we are only a couple of light years behind Finland. Many places in the U.S. if you did time in prison you have lost your right to vote.

    1. And, what’s more, there are many jobs you can no longer do (including many licensed professions), and many places you will no longer be allowed or welcomed to rent a place to live. Which, of course, makes people more likely to have to do shady things to make a living. It’s also a requirement (at least in Florida) to notify the state any time you move to a new place to live, or be guilty of breaking the law.

    2. Yes, that’s one of the craziest criminal “justice” policies in America. Bringing the offender back into a positive relationship with society should be the second goal, after protecting society. Excommunicating them from our democracy is about as wrong a move as you can get.

  2. If you hope that people will come out of the prison system and become contributing members of society, you need to offer hope. Prisons in America seem very dehumanizing to me. Americans seem to want prisoners to pay for their misdeeds by being uncomfortable, unsafe, demeaned, insulted and treated worse than cattle. I don’t see how you get good results from such treatment.

  3. The retributive justice system we have now is obviously not working — it it were, we wouldn’t have millions of Americans in prison, with a recidivism rate well over 50% (depending on how you count it). So yes, absolutely — let’s use science to home in on the best way to handle criminal justice. I.e., find out what works, then what works better, in getting us toward our goal of having a safer and more harmonious society.

    Except that I hold that a safer and more harmonious society is not what a lot of American people want — they have more primitive values which are reinforced by their reading of the Old Testament, to whit, if you do good in gawd’s eyes, you will be materially rewarded, and if you do evil, you deserve to be punished. A humane prison system, sometimes even giving offenders better lives than they had had before, isn’t sufficiently punitive for a Bible-totin’ ‘murican.

    Laws are made by politicians, not by social scientists. And politicians don’t remain politicians if they aren’t “tough on crime”, and certainly not if they want to try treating incarcerated people more decently than do their opponents in the next election. Not as long as voters clutch their Bibles.

    1. Absolutely agreed. In the UK it’s less biblically driven, but woe betide the politician in favour of rehabilitation rather than retribution.

    2. This totally. The point that opponents of Conservatives are too scared to drive home is that those addicted to harsh penalties have no interest in a safer, better society. Much better to have us all in misery, hating, vengeful and resentful for ever, instead of healing. It isn’t even about the offender.

  4. I think open prisons for violent offenders would have to come towards the end of a very long road for us. Our social safety net has to be built up before the open system. Otherwise, there is not much for them to go back to, except crime. Also too many gangs and criminal organizations who provide incentives (and possibly coercion) for recidivism. Lastly, cultural and social acceptance is probably not there. We are more like Les Mis than Finland – you carry your record with you, and you can be hired and/or trained, realistically, most of the time an employer or university sees that record, out you go.

  5. I suspect it is actually less expensive to house prisoners in Finland. I’m sure it costs more per prisoner to house them humanely but that is more than made up for by the lower crime rate. I’m suggesting this because even those who are in favor of retribution rank saving money and reducing crime more highly. I also suspect that much of the inhumane treatment is the result of money saving efforts rather than retribution.

    1. I think it probably costs much less to house them humanely. Labor costs almost always overwhelm costs like room and board. So if they get rid of the guards etc., they probably have immensely lower operating costs, even if their prisons house and feed the prisoners.

  6. As the video claims, the recidivism rate in Finland (re-imprisonment within two years after release) is half of what it is in America.

    Hell, the chance of being subjected to a second swim in one of those ice-water holes must alone have a great deterrent effect on recidivism. 🙂

    Probably takes two years for an offender’s testicles to reemerge from his body cavity.

    1. When I did a sauna with a lake dive in Finland (not in winter; the lake was mostly ice-free. But we did use it as a beer fridge), the Finns told me my fingertips hit the water, then my body practically turned around in midair and started heading for shore before the rest of me was in the water. 🙂

      1. I’m a try-anything-I-don’t-find-morally-repugnant-once kinda guy, but I’m pretty sure they’d have a helluva time getting me in that ice hole a second time.

        I used to have a membership at a Russian-Turkish bath spa on Miami Beach (a gift from a mobbed-up client). They had every kind of schvitz you could think of there — dry heat, wet heat, the works; and every kind of massage — regular, deep tissue, hot stones, even a room where an old Russian woman would come in and beat you with Eucalyptus branches. One of the stations was a sauna immediately followed by an ice-cold shower. One trip through that bad-boy was plenty for me.

        1. I did two cycles. My skin was singing. I’d like to think I’d do it again but…that was in my 20s. At my current age (a) my heart may not take it and (b) co-ed naked sauna doesn’t have the same appeal…for me, or for anyone subjected to my presence…

  7. In Timothy Leary’s (very bizarre) autobiography Flashbacks he recounts how he excitedly talked to the governor of Concord State Prison about the latest results from an experiment he had been conducting in the jail. Leary’s treatment group had a drastically reduced rate of recidivism. The governor appeared unenthusiastic, which puzzled Leary until he spotted the architectural model of a huge new extension to the prison on a table in the corner of the office.

    Now, Leary’s intervention was unconventional, to put it politely (!), probably unrealistic, and attempts to reproduce his findings have been unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there are very significant vested interests who would like to see the current lucrative US incarceration model maintained or even expanded. Reducing the recidivism rate is most definitely not on their agenda.

    1. This reminds me of the original TV Star Trek episode featuring Keye Luke (who went on to star as Master Po in the TV series Kung Fu) as a compassionate prison warden who had a system to rehabilitate and reform dangerously insane criminals. The episode’s entitled “Whom Gods Destroy,” and I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it by not describing more of the plot. As with many other features of his futuristic universe, ST’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was ahead of his time.

  8. Perhaps Finland simply lacks the black underclass without which the US would be about as safe as Europe. Singapore has an extraordinary low crime rate, and their system is quite punitive.

    I agree that prison is unlikely to make criminals better. Yet they work as a temporary quarantine that prevents them from breeding more criminals and committing more crimes while incarcerated.

  9. I am Finland. OK, I’m American, but my point is made. American’s who don’t want this kind of rehabilitation are simply ‘not up to date’. So saying this won’t work because this is America is ignorant and shortsighted as saying America a Christian nation.

  10. I’m far from a determinist, but, as an American, this has been one of my biggest issues for a long time. It makes me sad that neither of the two major parties seems to care, and very few activists seem to care either. It seems like almost nobody here cares about what happens to people once they’re in prison, especially when it comes to men.

    I dream of having a system like Finland’s some day, but I think US culture on all sides makes it impossible without us undergoing some sort of serious, across-the-board shift in American thinking.

  11. How do you rehabilitate someone who could not have done differently? If it is judged that I will commit a crime based on my past behavior, what re-education will prevent me from committing a crime in the future?

    I agree that I should be sequestered away from society if I am deemed a danger and that incarceration should not be retributive, but if I could not have done differently then what would rehabilitation look like?

    1. > what re-education will prevent me from committing a crime in the future?

      Perhaps none. Personality traits are so stable that even parents can’t change them. Without denying human nature, one should expect reoffending unless important incentives change, e.g. if it would mean ostracism by peers.

      The best warranty, for males at least, is that your biology will take its course. As men mature and their testosterone levels drop, their crime rate massively decreases. It’s so tiresome to read sob-stories of middle-aged ex-cons who “changed”. They would have done so with or without social workers, for the same reason they are now less likely to get into car accidents.

    2. Most of the felons I know — and as a prison volunteer, I know quite a few — would profit greatly if they could have mental health and substance abuse treatment, job skills training, and a fair shot at housing and employment when they get out. They were getting very little of that in the best of times, and things are particularly dire in this year of the pandemic.

      If, as a determinist, you believe that all we are is the product of our genes and our environment, then can’t you see that changing the environment for the better will help these guys develop into better people?

      It’s really not so hard to imagine that prisons could be places of healing for wounded minds.

    3. Not being able to have done differently has exactly zero to do with what may be possible to do in the future. The conflict you imply does not exist. If you make changes to a computer’s programming wouldn’t you expect it to behave differently than it did before you changed its programming?

      1. “Not being able to have done differently has exactly zero to do with what may be possible to do in the future.”

        It has everything to do with that is possible in the future. That’s the logic of determinism! It goes both forwards and backwards – your next choice is as determined and fixed as the one you just made, so ANY talk of what is “possible” would apply in either direction. If you allow that it is “possible” for someone to do X or Y before they do it, even though their choice is determined, then you should have no problem saying “it WAS possible to do X or Y” AFTER they choose, even though their choice was determined.

        But if you are going to stick to your guns and say of a past choice “it wasn’t possible to do otherwise” because it was determined, then you need to be consistent and not claim someone can “do otherwise” in their next determined choice. But most hard determinists don’t seem to be consistent in this manner. They will say “you couldn’t do otherwise” as a major insight about past choices, but then go on to reason about current choices based on “being able to do otherwise.”

        Likewise, what Mike seems to be getting at is that if you premise treating prisoners differently than they are now on the basis “they could NOT have done otherwise” then
        it creates a consistency problem when you start trying to advise them to “do otherwise.”

        Reformer: “You couldn’t have done otherwise than rape that woman, which put you in prison.”

        Rapist: “How is that?”

        Reformer: “Because none of us could ever have done otherwise than we did, in any choice, ever. Determinism entails that choice between actual alternative possibilities is just an illusion.”

        Rapist: “Ok. So I thought I had the option of not raping that woman, but really I didn’t, I couldn’t have done otherwise.”

        Reformer: “Right, now that we’ve established you couldn’t do otherwise, let’s talk about how you can change your behavior…”

        Rapist: “Wait…now you are telling me…I can do otherwise? So if I see a woman that invokes my desire to rape, I can in this case do otherwise than rape her?”

        Reformer: “Well, yes, I’m going to talk like you can do otherwise. But that’s just to change your psychology. See, your behavior can be influenced. But as soon as you make your next choice, I’ll remind you that you couldn’t have done otherwise. That’s why we treat you better now in prison, as someone who doesn’t deserve blame..and also as someone who we can try to reform.”

        Rapist: “I’m afraid you are not making sense to me. You’ll tell me I have a choice between two options, and can do otherwise, in order to influence me. But will immediately deny my ability to have done otherwise once I’ve made my choice? That seems to be a “fool me once” scenario. How do you really think you’ll influence me, once I notice this inconsistency? How do you expect to influence me with actual reason when I know you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth?”

        Reformer: “Frankly, I don’t know. I’m determined to do what I do too. But if I make the right noises, maybe your behavior will change.”

        Rapist: “You mean, you can still influence me…to do otherwise?”

        Reformer: “No, not really, doing otherwise than we are determined to do is impossible.
        Now, shall we begin?”

        Rapist: “No thanks. Until you can make more sense, I’m gonna go see the guy with the bible…”

        1. I’m not sure what you’re trying to do with this argument except call out determinists for being linguistic hypocrites. Is that what you’re doing? If so, are you also a determinist, or do you think there’s libertarian free will? You seem to want to continually kvetch about determinists, pointing out LINGUISTIC inconsistency, without giving your own position about determinism.

          At any rate, and I’m sick and tired of pointing this out, there is no inconsistency with saying that nobody could have done other than what they did at a given time and saying that environmental influences can change brain wiring and hence behavior. Everybody knows that: if you kick a friendly dog, it learns to avoid you. That’s the result of an adaptive brain program that processes pain inputs and turns them into avoidance behavior. Of course a person has no choice about kicking the dog, just as we have no choice but to argue for humane justice systems that can affect prisoners in a way that they won’t transgress. That is not inconsistent, though you seem eager to point out some kind of hypocrisy here. The “reasoning” process is just the way our evolved brain programs work, and they’re in general adaptive to create salubrious, reproduction-enhancing effects.

          Frankly, I’m sick of this miguideded argument, which seems to be completely about shorthand semantics. As far as I can see, the following is petulant nonsense:

          Reformer: “Well, yes, I’m going to talk like you can do otherwise. But that’s just to change your psychology. See, your behavior can be influenced. But as soon as you make your next choice, I’ll remind you that you couldn’t have done otherwise. That’s why we treat you better now in prison, as someone who doesn’t deserve blame..and also as someone who we can try to reform.”

          Rapist: “I’m afraid you are not making sense to me. You’ll tell me I have a choice between two options, and can do otherwise, in order to influence me. But will immediately deny my ability to have done otherwise once I’ve made my choice? That seems to be a “fool me once” scenario. How do you really think you’ll influence me, once I notice this inconsistency? How do you expect to influence me with actual reason when I know you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth?”

        2. Vaal,

          Nothing of the argument you laid out addresses the point at all. You’ve either studiously ignored the point or carefully stepped around it to argue other things that are not relevant to the original argument. This is not a matter of linguistics.

          Given the premise that determinism is true, that your choices are determined, in no way entails that the variables involved in determining those choices don’t or can’t change over time. To think so is to misunderstand determinism.

          The only way to get to your conclusion is to also assume the additional premise, unrelated to determinism, that all variables are the same and will never change, i.e. there actually are no variables. And that is not the case. We know that there are a myriad variables and that they change continuously. Even if all of those variables are also determined, which seems to be true, at least locally (see Sean Carroll), that doesn’t help your argument the slightest bit.

          Determinism, as you no doubt well know, entails that a decision is determined by the physical systems of the person’s body, the states of all parts of the system and all of the environmental variables that have affected those systems. All of those things change with time. People’s bodies change over time, they experience new things, new inputs, every instant.

          As you also no doubt well know when people like Jerry say “a person could not have chosen to do otherwise,” that is exactly what they are referring to. And this conception of determinism is largely accepted and given to be true by incompatiblist and compatibilist experts alike.

          1. When you say that the convict had no choice but to commit the crime, you are denying his ability to have made a different choice. But then you are saying that we’re going to rehabilitate the convict so he can make better choices in the future. The first says he doesn’t have agency but the second says he does. That seems in conflict to me. I’m willing to accept determinism but I don’t think it means what some say it means.

            1. “When you say that the convict had no choice but to commit the crime, you are denying his ability to have made a different choice.

              Not quite. We’re saying that his choice was “determined,” in the physics sense of that word. Sean Carroll describes this very well, IMO, and he is a compatibilist by the way.

              Yes, determinism does mean that any concept of “choice” that includes not being subject to the laws of physics, is incorrect. The general consensus of physicists is that determinism is true, at the least locally. As I’ve said before, the large majority of both incompatibilist and compatibilists (for example Dennett) experts agree that determinism is true and that choices are determined.

              1. Yes, I agree with Sean Carroll on both determinism and free will. I have said this many times in past comments.

                I didn’t say anything about choices violating the laws of physics. I believe the laws of physics to hold everywhere and that there are no other forces and mechanisms as far as we know. I don’t see how this affects my point though.

              2. I could be misinterpreting you but it seems to me that you have a different idea about what determinism is compared to physics, or what it means to say that choices are determined.

                If you input “2+3” into a calculator and it outputs “5,” wouldn’t you expect the output to change if you then input “2*3”?

                Sure, humans are far more complex information processing machines than calculators are, but both are subject to determinism. Why would one think that something much more complex than a calculator could be incapable of different outputs given different parameters?

            2. Sorry, hit enter mistakenly . . .

              “But then you are saying that we’re going to rehabilitate the convict so he can make better choices in the future.”

              True. I just can’t see any conflict. Yes, given certain new inputs, the rehab, it is hoped that at any future point in time that he may be in a situation to commit the same or similar crime that his “determined” decision will be different than the one he made that led him to commit the crime. It is perfectly straight forward to assume that if you make changes to the information processing system that its outputs would change. And that if you happened to make the correct changes, rehab based on good methods with a record of success higher than chance, you could affect the outcomes that you had hoped to.

              As far as what determinism means, I can’t speak for everyone obviously, but in this context most people mean determinism as per physics. I think Sean Carroll in his several writings on determinism and free will explains it very well for lay people, like me. Both what it means and that per modern physics it is true (at the very least locally, see Sean).

              1. When I said that I don’t think determinism means what some say it means, I wasn’t referring to determinism itself, but what it implies about free will, agency, etc. which are human level concepts. I guess I should have used “implies” instead of “means”.

                “I think Sean Carroll in his several writings on determinism and free will explains it very well for lay people, like me.”

                You seem to be saying here that you agree with Carroll on free will. If so, then we have no argument.

              2. I have very little to disagree with Sean about when it comes to free-will, and none at all when it comes to determinism.

          2. darrelle

            You’ve just told me that changes can occur in a deterministic system.

            I’d ask you to stop and consider: Do you *really* think that I didn’t know that, or that I have or ever have argued against this Most Obvious Observation In The World?

            I mean, every interaction we have in the world takes this as a given. (Even libertarian soul-believing free willers know that IF it rains their lawns will get wet).

            Surely, with charity, you’d see that I can’t possibly be arguing based on such a mistaken motion that “determinism = no change,” and so you are much more likely to be missing my point. (The point is about how we conceive of, and express, what is “possible” in a deterministic system – and whether we are being consistent and coherent within that framework).

            But I’ll reply down below in more detail.

            1. I’d advise you not to keep replying in more detail to those who, you claim, “misunderstand you”. Your argument above boils down to a criticism of the language used by determinists, and if it is “consistent and coherent”–as if determinists (or scientists) never use shorthand.

              You’ve made this point over and over again, and you needn’t make it any more. Yes, sometimes we use shorthand, and sometimes I talk as if I had a free choice. But I know what I mean, and I can clarify it, and have clarified it, but you keep on implying that somehow we are either inconsistent or hypocrites. I’m tired of that argument.

            2. Well, that being a given I can’t imagine what your issue here is. Since you think this is the MOOITW I don’t see how any argument you haven’t already made could demonstrate that given determinism that rehabilitation is impossible. That’s what you’re arguing. A reasonable conclusion is that you have a different conception of determinism than nearly all experts, both compatibilists and incompatibilists.

              I’m not at all interested in linguistics here.

        3. That’s a great example. Not only do they fail to apply determinism forward in time, they also seem to apply it to one person at a time. They say that the convict had no choice but those in the criminal justice system should modify their behavior.

  12. That’s largely, I suspect, because American prisons are directed more toward punishment than rehabilitation.

    And let’s not forget profit.

    1. I often see this argument and, while it makes sense on the surface level, just imagine how much money there would be in upgrading our prisons to be like those in Finland. It would require a complete overhaul of every prison in the entire country. Sure, cutting down on sentences and prisoners would take some money out of the system, but (1) improving prisons and cutting down on prisoners/sentences are not mutually exclusive, and (2) the overhaul would take many years and be extremely lucrative to the companies undertaking it. Plus, the prisons would cost more money to maintain. It’s this last part that is, unfortunately, the likely reason for the conditions of our system and something I imagine most Americans would be against, as they don’t like the idea of spending on what they consider to be a largely irredeemable class of people. Most Americans don’t want to spend money on prisoners living well. Americans have a tendency to view anyone in prison as deserving of what they’re getting, or at least viewing them that way when they’re the types of criminals that they personally don’t like (it varies by political persuasion).

  13. This is great. I haven’t read all the comments, but I’d point out that there are going to be a subset of convicts that will not respond well to any progressive programs, and will not be able to reintegrate into society. They may have issues that go deep into their psychology or even biology that preclude reform. This does not suggest they cannot be treated well, just that some may have to remain confined in some way.

  14. Almost as if summoned, let’s keep on record that Mr Joe Biden, future president and already hailed as making America great again, co-wrote the very laws that inflated the US prison population, which is per capita the largest on earth. Yes, Biden is infinitely better than another term of Trump. but still terrible.

  15. 1. Mother Jones has a November 2020 article on the negative effects of the potential loss of a second term of the Trump presidency on for profit prisons stocks. It also states that Biden wants to get rid of for profit prisons.

    2. Another prison-related article I read recently made me aware for the first time of “dry cells” with no toilets or showers that the Federal Bureau of Prisons uses to incarcerate drug offenders to obtain evidence from urine or excretory samples. The prisoner is under constant surveillance in which the guard must check the prisoner every 15 minutes.

    3. If you aren’t aware of Van Jones (check him out on Wiki) re prison issues, and others. He has a YouTube video called “What if a US presidential candidate refuses to concede after an election.” I would highly recommend that all of us US citizens (especially)read it as I had no idea of the mess we may be in if Trump doesn’t concede. Apparently, not everything about presidential elections is covered by the Constitution or laws or court decisions.

  16. I agree entirely with the broken toys theory as I don’t believe in free will.

    I used to be a criminal defense attorney in Queens and Manhattan – the worst aspect of our system is it is so damn punitive with all sorts of (fed) mandatory minimums,etc.

    Our biggest mistake, however, and the motherload of racial inequality…. by a long shot = War on Drugs. We’ve REALLY screwed the pooch on that one and forced other countries into hell along with us. Some of which our policies wrecked (the ENITRE nations).

    If you look, ALL the Scandinavian countries have better records than we do, not just Finland. Their systems are data driven, not Jesus fueled.

    David Anderson, J.D.

  17. The other piece of the puzzle is that the staffing levels required for Finnish-style prisons is much lower, so the costs of incarceration are reduced. In reality, its not fun losing your liberty, even if you are confined in a palace.

    However, my general impression is that it comes down to the perception of Us and Them. The Finns appear to regard their criminals as part of “Us” worthy of redeeming. In the US, criminals are generally regarded as “Them,” and many people would prefer to simply have them thrown down a mine shaft. The US prison system in many ways reflects declining social cohesion.

  18. It’s strange but true that the more humane the jail the less recidivism. If only we spent a fraction of the price of locking people up on mentoring and life coaching.

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