Understanding Incarceration in the U.S.

In the time since my return from Scandinavia, I have continued my research into comparing the United States prisons to prisons around the world but first, I had to understand the system here in the United States. Jails, prisons, public, private-there are so many elements I needed to wrap my head around before I could make an educated comparison. Using the Federal Bureau of prisons website (https://www.bop.gov/locations/list.jsp) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics site (https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=13), I have created this diagram showing all of the different types of facilities we have here in the U.S. It is still a work in progress, as daily I find things to add and adjust on this diagram, but I believe I am on the right track.

As I continue to enhance this breakdown, I will also look into how other countries around the world break down their prisons systems; are there similar systems and how to others drastically differ from ours? The United States has the highest prison population in the world which may be why there is a need for such a system, but other countries such as China and Brazil also have very high inmate populations- are their systems similar or different?

It is difficult to compare the U.S. system to those of Scandinavia due to the drastic difference in not only total inmate population, but each of the Scandi countries is much smaller than the US; around 5 million per Scandi country when the U.S. is home to about 323 million people.

9. Halden Fengsel

Last but certainly not least, Halden Fengsel in Halden Norway is my final tour of a prison facility here in the Nordic countries. I met with warden Are Hoidal for most of the day on July 4th where we discussed Halden’s policies and design as the “Rolls Royce” of prisons, as it has been called previously.

Halden Prison is a high security prison for male inmates. Built in 2010, this innovative design is one-of-a-kind in Norway. The master plan appears much like a college campus located in a densely wooded and hilly area.

Upon arrival at the front door, however, there is no doubt you have arrived at a high security prison. The entire campus is bordere3d by a high concrete wall. “Maximum security outside, maximum freedom inside” is the motto.

Though I was not able to take my own photos inside of the prison, I am working with the warden to gain the images I need. I was luck however in that Mr. Hoidal was able to capture an image of me with the famous mural located in one of the exercise areas.

I am holding in this picture a cookbook which was created by the inmates, printed by the inmates, and a gift to me by the warden.

7. Sagsjon & 8. Hogsbo Fangelse


The prison at Sagsjon is a women’s facility located in Gothenburg city. The prison was not built to be in the city, but the growth of Gothenburg has surrounded the prison so that now is it receiving neighbors just beyond the low fence around the perimeter.

Proving that Swedish prisons aim to create a normative lifestyle for inmates while incarcerated, I found a midsommar pole just outside of the living unit. Midsommar is an important holiday in Sweden where people gather to celebrate and dance around the midsommar pole decorated with greenery and flowers. The inmates made this pole and were allowed to maintain the traditional celebration.


Inmates here at Sagsjon are encouraged to create works of art and maintain hobbies. A young troubled woman created several large installations of faces which she said allowed her to express the inner turmoil she faced daily. Out on release for some time now, prison officials said she called to check in and said she is doing well.

Just beyond the low “security fence”, which is really just a chain link fence marking the extent of the property, are several buildings that act as halfway houses for women who are about to be released. Here, they live and leave the premises to attend work and school; they are only held to a curfew and random drug testing as they ease their way back into society.


Hogsbo Prison is the final facility I visited in Sweden and it is located in the city of Gothenburg. Another high security facility for male inmates, I was not allowed to take my own photos, but the warden allowed me access to a few of the images I wanted through the help of the guard who led me through the facility, Mr. David Efraimmson.


This facility was filled with an abundance of daylight through the use of skylights and windows.


The art program is very popular and the studio is used often.


After visiting these two prisons, Kirsten and I hopped on a bus to Oslo. Arriving here, we were pleasantly surprised to find warmer temperatures! Thus far, the weather has been a chilly 50-65 degrees F, but here in Oslo it was sunny and 70-85 degrees.

5. Tidaholm & 6. Rodjan Fangelse


Tidaholm Fangelse is a maximum security men’s prison located 2 hours east of Gothenburg, Sweden. Due to the high security status, I was not allowed to bring a camera into the facility for my tour, but the warden agreed to send me images of the facility for my research.

Though this facility is maximum security, the master plan is similar to that of a campus. Inmates are separated into small groups and reside in one story buildings where they each have their own “cell” and must walk outside to work and other programs they participate in. In Sweden, every inmate, unless elderly or ill, is required to work or attend school as if they were employed at a full time job.

Above is a typical cell model showing the built in furniture, which is made at another prison in Sweden.

Just a short 45 minute drive away is located Rodjan prison in Mariestad, an open prison for male inmates. This is a drastic change from the way the prison in Tiderholm operates, in fact it is an operating farm. The only security fences here are meant to detain the dairy cows and goats.


This facility is designed for inmates who are nearing the end of their sentence.  They may apply to come here to Rodjan or to another open prison which will help them to transition back into society. A priority in Swedish prisons is helping the inmates to transition out of prison into more normative environments before going home in an effort to reduce recidivism rates.

Along with farming, inmates can earn certificates and training in various trades which will help them to get a job upon release. Prison facilities in Sweden do their best to find inmates jobs prior to their release. One example of this training is a metal shop where they teach the newest technologies for welding, CNC machining, and laser cutting.


Back to work

This afternoon, I had an introductory meeting with the Kriminalvarden, the Swedish Prison and Probation Service, to discuss my research and our plan for touring prison facilities in the Gothenburg region.

Mr. Majkel Vestergaard, the medical and health advisor for Kriminalvarden region Vast (west) and Mr. Ola Svensson, also of region Vast, organized a program of facilities to tour in the following days. On Wednesday, we would drive out of the city to visit two facilities roughly 2 hours east of Gothenburg and on Thursday, we were to visit two facilities in the city of Gothenburg. Mr. Vestergaard and Mr. Svensson are highly knowledgable about the prison system here in Sweden and gave me an abundance of knowledge in this meeting to prepare me for touring the Swedish prison facilities.

Following this meeting, I explored Gothenburg on a beautiful sunny day.

The botanical gardens

The botanical gardens

Skansen Kronan, a fortress on a hill where many people gather to picnic in the evenings and enjoy a great view of the city below. The fortress was built from 1687-1700, but was never attacked by enemies. In the 1900’s, the fort was used as a prison (yes!) and is currently a military museum.




4. Helsinki Prison – 6.22.17

The fourth and last prison I visited in Helsinki was the Helsinki Prison, a closed maximum security facility for males located in the city limits. I was invited to join a group from Macedonia who were interested in learning more about the Finnish prison facilities and policies because they are making great improvements to their own facilities.

This model would be the most closely related to the facilities of the United States in that there is a higher population housed in one building- roughly 350 clients. Also, the windows, which are operable, do have bars, fences and brick walls surround the perimeter, and there is a hint of barbed wire. Clients sentenced to this facility have committed violent crimes and are not yet prepared for the lifestyle of the open facility.

Some differences between the Helsinki prison and those of the U.S. include the opportunity to have a day of leave monthly once they are halfway through their sentence, a small monetary stipend for commissary purchases, and the ability to wear their own personal clothing.

Entering the prison through a set of automatic steel doors, I was directed into this waiting room atrium space. Clients often pass through this space which is filled with sunlight. This facility was built in 1881 and has many beautiful historic elements such as this stone pattern laid in the waiting room floor.

Sleeping quarters in this facility are much more closed than the three previous facilities visited; clients are locked into their individual cells at night. Most individuals have their own cell, but a few are inhabited by two clients.

Maintaining relationships on the outside with friends and loved ones is very important to a clients rehabilitation and success post-incarceration, so these phone booths are provided for the clients use. Sound proof, these booths allow the clients to speak to family or lawyers in privacy while still being visible to the guards.

As with every prison facility in Finland, physical health is important and provided for. The Helsinki Prison is equipped with a gymnasium, a weight lifting area inside as well as a weight lifting area outside. Inmates can borrow sneakers if they do not have a pair of their own. The outside area is used only in the summertime and the clients can spend many hours here. The summers in Helsinki are brief so inmates are given extra liberties during this season.

As with every prison I visited in Finland, the goal of relationships between guards and clients is one of respect and equality. There is minimal violence between inmates nor is there violence between inmates and guards. Although this prison was much more closed than the previous facilities I toured, I did not sense fear being locked inside with these inmates. There was a brief moment of panic when a door slammed shut and locked, leaving myself as well as two other women behind the tour group in a tiny corridor, but this was mostly due to my claustrophobia and fear of not being able to get out of the building. Luckily, the Governor was not too far away yet.

3. Suomenlinna Island – 6.21.17

A 15 minute ferry ride from Helsinki is Suomenlinna Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Originally constructed as a fortress, the island now houses residents, tourist attractions, and of course-a prison.

Suomenlinna Prison is Finland’s most open prison housing males reaching the end of their sentence. All must be able to work construction as their full time job is to maintain the fortress and tourist attraction on the island of Suomenlinna. Some clients even leave the island daily to attend jobs or classes in the city of Helsinki.

So when you see a person mowing the grass or repairing a stone wall of the fortress-it is most likely a client (inmate).

Shown above is the most current model for the open prison at Suomenlinna. Housing 8-12 clients, these structures are equipped with full kitchens, living/dining areas, single or double bedrooms, and sauna-a staple of Finnish culture. As mentioned previously, inmates in Finland are guaranteed all rights that other citizens of Finland enjoy-minus their freedom.

Typical client bedroom.

The prison complex is comprised of separate buildings for housing, staff, dining, and classroom space which can also be used for meetings with lawyers. The above image shows the canteen which is a multipurpose facility where inmates dine, staff can hold meetings, and large group gatherings are held.

Other inhabitants of the island include residents-roughly 850 people living free from the prison. Their houses and apartments are adjacent to the prison buildings. There are no fences separating the prison from the residences or the fortress-and there have not been any negative issues with inmates interacting with residents or visitors.

2. Vanaja Vankila – 6.20.17

The second prison visited was Vanaja vankila, an all female open facility located 15 minutes from Hameenlinna vankila in Vanaja, Finland. As with all prisons in Finland, there are no fences or barbed wire typical to the prisons in the United States. Women reside in cottages reminiscent of college dormitories, as shown above. Ms. Kaisa Tammi-Moilanen is the warden here and is very passionate about providing whatever the females need in order to get their lives back on track.

Full kitchens are provided in these cottages where the women cook their own meals. I again had the opportunity to speak directly with two female clients at Vanaja vankila, one of these discussions was held in the dining space pictured above. Mid conversation, the female I was speaking with jumped up to go answer her ringing cellular phone, which all clients are permitted to own.

The women are allowed an abundance of freedoms at Vanaja vankila because they arrive here most often at the end of their sentences in order to gradually transition out of the facility. The normal lifestyle is preparing them to live independently once they have served their sentence and are free to go home permanently.

I was allowed to enter all spaces of the facility including bedrooms. The client is free to decorate her personal space. The flowers on the table were picked on the prison campus-an element that brings cheer into the facility.

1. Hameenlinna Vankila – 6.20.17

Located one hour’s drive north of Helsinki, Hameenlinna vankila is a prison housing male and female clients under both closed and open facility polices. The male clients will soon be relocated to another nearby facility, allowing this to be strictly a female facility.

Finland has 4 levels of prison types ranging from maximum security closed facilities to open facilities where the inmates may have the opportunity to leave the facility for work and family visits.

Mr. Tuomo Karjenmaki, the Director of the facility, graciously guided our group consisting of three women from the Criminal Sanctions Agency as well as Kirsten and myself through the entire facility. I had the opportunity to sit with a client (inmate) to discuss her thoughts and feelings about the design of the prison; which spatial elements were a positive influence on her rehabilitation as well as what could be improved to make her feel as though she was living a normative lifestyle, as all Finnish prisons strive to do.

A major amenity in Hameenlinna vankila is the mother and child facilities; there are several areas where women can visit with their child in a comfortable environment as well as rooms for mothers and children to live. When female clients have yoiung children, they have the opportunity to bring their child in the prison with them.

Due to security and respect for privacy, I am unable to display photographs of the mothers with their children inside of the play rooms.

Our tour group was invited to eat lunch with the staff, which is the same type of food the clients are served, before we departed for our next vankila (prison) visit in nearby Vanaja.

At the end of the tour, the warden presented us with a gift: a tote bag sewn by the clients and a small blanket made from the same material used to make client uniforms historically. Clients are no longer required to wear uniforms, they may have their own clothes while living at Hameenlinna.

First day in Finland

Well, technically this is the second day in Helsinki, but the first day of my research. The first day was spent exploring and adjusting to the surroundings. And experiencing a truly endless day of summer.

This morning, I met with Mr. Kauko Niemela, Mr. Ilppo Alatalo, and Ms. Jutta Kannisto of RISE, The Criminal Sanctions Agency of Finland. They welcomed me to their office, displaying presentations explaining how the agency has operated in the past and innovations that will be implemented for the future. This included proposals to locate new prisons where they are easily linked to amenities such as colleges and healthcare, rather than rurally, which would lessen the financial burden on the prison by allowing clients to use existing facilities.

In the United States, when an inmate is sentenced to prison, especially female inmates due to the fewer number of facilities, they may be located hundreds of miles from home, sometimes in different states, where it is impossible to receive visits. In Finland, there are laws in place that prohibit this; clients, as they refer to inmates, are located in facilities close to home to serve their sentence, an average which is 11 months but varies depending on the offense.

A first time offender in Finland is required to serve half of their sentence because the Criminal Sanctions Agency believes in second chances and that rehabilitation is possible, Mr. Niemela explained to me. The United States, on the other hand, has in place mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug related crimes which have resulted in an 800% increase in female inmates since 1977.

I am now headed back to RISE to observe a presentation for the proposed female facility in Hameenlinna; the existing facility I will be visiting tomorrow.