Blog: Finnish prisons go online

20 Oct 2015

In the first of a series of new blogs on the European Prison Education Association Conference, PET's Head of Policy Nina Champion focuses on Finland's approach to technology, where earlier this year prisoners were given access to the internet:

"With the theme of innovation in prison education, at the bi-annual European Prison Education Association Conference, technology was bound to be on the agenda. It is particularly timely as the current review into prison education is considering technology, and therefore at PET, we were interested to learn about what was happening in Europe. One of the keynote speeches was given by Kati Sunimento, Senior Specialist at the Criminal Sanctions Agency in Finland.

On 1st May this year a significant change was made in legislation when the amendments to the Imprisonment Act came into force giving prisoners access to the internet in the following circumstances:

‘A prisoner may be granted a permission to use internet in order to attend to livelihood, work, education, legal, social or housing issues or for other corresponding important reason for instance e-learning and contact with authorities. Permission to use internet may be granted if use does not endanger safety or security. A prisoner may be granted permission to send and receive emails to maintain contacts and attend to livelihood, work, education, legal, social or housing or other important reason.’

The new law offers recognition that Finland’s government believes digital skills are comparable to reading and writing skills, particularly as most interaction with authorities is now done electronically.

Sunimento set out the other reasons behind the new law:

  1. To increase use of electronic communication
  2. To simplify and modernise work practices
  3. To promote cost effectiveness
  4. To increase the amount of e-learning and study possibilities of prisoners by enabling more individualised study paths (as e-learning reduces need to have a class of prisoners to study a specific subject) 
  5. To enable prisoners to be able to take the Finnish matriculation examination which will be in electronic form from autumn 2016

Since 2012, all open prisons in Finland have a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) provided by Oracle where prisoners can login with a prison smart card to go online. Use of internet is limited only by a so-called school filter (prohibiting sites with adult entertainment, violence, drugs etc).  In addition, some open prisons have devices with totally open internet access for education and some have granted prisoners permissions to use internet on their own devices for those with their own computer for study in their cell. 

In 2014 a project was piloted in Finland enabling prisoners in closed prisons to use Oracle VDI devices to access a secure moodle learning environment. Prisoners and teachers are able to send messages to each other via the moodle and it allows students to submit assignments. Teachers can access the system outside prison as well as inside using a secure connection. The educational resources consist of modified moodle courses for upper secondary school for adults and internet links are replaced by other educational material. 

The pilot showed the benefits of e-learning, especially for prisoners who cannot take part in other prison education. 

Sunimento explained that the use of VDI devices will end in 2017, as Oracle discontinues the hardware, so they will need a new solution. An electronic communication project started in August 2015 to develop a totally new system, in line with the latest legislation, to be in place by next year. 

Sunimento told us that the change in the law does not really show in the everyday life of closed prisons yet, as such a huge change requires careful planning including the training of staff, adjustment of attitudes and security. However, the change in the law has enabled progress to begin on piloting access to websites using a firewall system as seen in schools whereby access to certain websites is blocked and use by prisoners is supervised through technology. They have also recently piloted a successful project using tablets.

The Criminal Sanctions Agency is currently developing new rules on permissions which include:

  • Permission is only granted to prisoners who have given an account of an important reason to use the internet for either a specific period or until further notice.
  • The Prison Director grants permissions, rather than officers.
  • If a prisoner breaches the terms of permission it may be cancelled and breaching terms is a disciplinary infraction.
  • Outgoing emails will be inspected to check they are going to the email address permission had been granted for, but the content of the email communication will not generally be read, it is treated in the same way as private correspondence.
  • Prisoners cannot use email if in high security prisons.
  • A prisoner may also be granted permission to contact close relatives and other important people through video connection.

Although in general prisoners cannot be granted permission to use social media, discretion can be applied, for example recently a woman prisoner was allowed to use Facebook for educational purposes as there was a relevant study group to support her studies. The aim is to use same system in communication with teachers working outside the prison through email and video connection.

Sunimento explains that they are still grappling with some of the big questions about how to implement the new law in practice such as: Will it be in or out of cell? Should we have fully open internet in open prisons? Whatever the decisions, the new law clearly sets out a step change in the use of internet, electronic communication and e-learning in Finnish prisons.  The big question for the UK is, will the Coates Review into prison education recommend such a step change for prisoners here, as suggested in the report ‘Through the Gateway’ by PET and PRT?"