11 Aug 2021

AI, Tech Startups & The Finnish Prison System

In Finland, inmate uses VR and learns about tech and AI

Despite only making up 4% of the world’s population, the US makes up 22% of the world’s prisoner population. Hallmark politicians like Bill Clinton and more recently, Vice-President Kamala Harris have built a legacy on being “tough on crime”.

But in light of the continuously shifting landscape, some argue that being tough on crime may not actually produce any effective drop in crime rates.

Others point to America’s “broken incarceration system” which fails to address the root causes of crime. Broken, arguably because America’s recidivism rate (rate of repeat offending after exiting prison) is one of the highest in the world (70%). Compare that with Scandinavian countries like Norway who have a rate of about 20%.

The Happiest Country on Earth

Attempting to revolutionise imprisonment is the nation of Finland, the world’s happiest country four years running. The Finnish authorities have taken a radically different approach to most in terms of their attitudes towards prisoner punishment and crucially towards prisoner rehabilitation.

Open and Closed Prisons

Finland has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the world.

Hosting 11 facilities, the so-called “open-prison” offers the prisoner a uniquely pleasant experience. Inmates aren’t even technically imprisoned – built on a system of trust, they are free to come and go as they please in their own vehicles. They stay in “cells” which are arguably the same if not better standard than much of the university student accommodation.

But even closed prisons (where there are physical restrictions in place) aren’t like the ones we see in most of the world. Inmates are encouraged to become self-sufficient and are offered rewards including virtual reality experiences.

The project manager for Finland’s Smart Prison Project explained “We have this kind of normality principle that prisoners should be treated equally even though they are prisoners, but they should have access to same services and rights as, as other citizens.”

Rehabilitation avoids Recidivism

One of the largest criticisms of traditional imprisonment is that it not only does not help to morally re-educate inmates but it might even be making inmates more criminally inclined through repeated exposure to other criminals.

Finnish prisons seek to truly rehabilitate their inmates. The authorities have invested millions into offering inmates educational courses and training to not only prepare inmates for re-entering society but to upskill them.

Working collaboratively with tech startups like Vainu, which pay prisoners to test their algorithms, prison authorities are keen to advance post-prison opportunities by providing education in technology to their inmates.

Business Insider met open-prison inmate, Matti, who is serving a murder sentence. Besides taking dips in the local lake, Matti has been studying for a university degree as well as learning about AI and technology from local startup companies. After finishing his sentence he plans on starting his own business.

Could we learn from Finland?

The prison system in Finland is a stark contrast to the systems used in the wider world. Horrid living conditions, a lack of autonomy and dangerous company are marketed to society to act as a deterrent from wrongdoing. Yet Finland takes the opposite approach and still keeps crime low.

But Finland and Scandinavia in general, are a rather unique set of countries. Emerging from a uniquely non-hierarchical social structure, Finland has evolved as a homogenously cooperative society where trust, transparency and civic duty have become deeply ingrained into culture says Sirpa Kähkönen, an award-winning historical novelist.

With around only 3000 people in prison, Finland also has a much smaller problem to deal with than countries like the US with over 2 million. The culture of Finland certainly suits the establishment of open prisons, the same system put in place anywhere else in the world would be a pretty high-risk experiment.

Ultimately prisoner wellbeing and living conditions should be globally improved but it falls on policymakers to consider where are the areas for improvement and vitally – how much is it all going to cost.

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