Smart Prison Facility Spurs Rehabilitation in Finland

By Pia Puolakka

The past years have seen rapid advances in the use of technological solutions in prisons globally. In-cell technology like personal cell terminals for prisoners are becoming more common in many countries. In Finland this development was speeded up by the Smart Prison Project. The project started in 2018 with the purpose to introduce a new prison concept that uses digital services for rehabilitation, education, and reintegration. The objectives were to install cell devices with a smart system into the new Hämeenlinna women’s prison and develop the use of digital services in all Criminal Sanctions Agency’s units. The project was both a digital leap and a Covid-19 leap, as all the most challenging parts of the project, such as tendering, procurement, auditing, acceptance testing and roll-out, were carried out under very exceptional circumstances due to covid-19 restrictions and mostly remotely.

In 2015 Finland’s Imprisonment and Remand Imprisonment Act were revised to include prisoner’s digital rights. Prisoners were given the permission to send and receive e-mail messages and use the internet for the maintenance of outside contacts and for work-related, educational, judicial, social, housing or other important purposes and to communicate with their close relatives or other persons via video connection. Before this revision in 2015, it had become evident that prison system was lacking behind the digital development of the rest of the society. Prisoners could be seen as digitally marginalized and in risk of being marginalized even more due to lack of digital skills necessary in the modern society. This digital gap was to be caught up in order to ensure prisoners access to services equal to other citizens.

In 2017–2018 Criminal Sanctions Agency had already provided all units with joint use workstations. From these laptops it was possible to use restricted Internet, Open Office tools and Skype calls by permission from prison director. There were also separate laptops for high-school examination. However, many challenges were still faced related to controlling, strong electronic identification, lack of proper e-mail system and instructions how to take full use of the whitelisted websites since no searching / browsing functions like “googling” could be used in the restricted Internet. Prisoners’ and staffs’ digital skills were limited and there wasn’t enough resources and assistance to prisoners’ digital service use. The conclusion was that personal devices with smart systems were needed.

From the beginning it was evident that we weren’t only looking for a technical solution but wanted the digital services to support the strategical targets and the new prison concept of the Criminal Sanctions Agency. Personal and easy access to services was supposed to enable prisoners to find rehabilitative services and reintegrate to the society. This would mean a continuum to digital society within the prison time. It was evident that digital skills are necessary in the society to take care of daily affairs, study, work and your civil rights. From the staff point of view, digital in-cell solutions and smart systems were supposed to lessen paper- work and provide smoother work processes. Part of the new prison concept was that officers would have more time for face-to-face contact with prisoners when prisoners take care of routine tasks more independently and digitally.

The new prison concept described prison as ‘a learning environment for a life without crime’. The development process of the new prison concept and its services involved both staff and prisoners. We collaborated with them in several workshops and conducted interviews and questionnaires. We also had a 2-months proof of concept (POC) with some of the vendors in Europe that currently provide cell terminal systems. In the planning phase, service design model was used to find out the services that are most user-friendly and relevant to users – seeing the prisoner as a customer. We were also interested in the women specific needs and also investigated the smart prison model used in other European countries. In the service design process, we were able to recognize seven different rehabilitative needs including substance abuse rehabilitation, education, healthcare, family work and social services. The idea was that also digital services provide relevant help on all the seven rehabilitative themes.

The result—Hämeenlinna Smart Prison—was completed on Nov. 1, 2020. In March 2021, each of the 100 single cells were equipped with a cell terminal (a laptop) installed with a smart system provided by Gerdes. Since then, the inmates are using the system for messages, requests, and video calls to contact the staff. They can also contact prison health care services and other authorities and co-operation partners, such as NGOs and Social Insurance Office, and make video calls to communicate with relatives and people close to them. Furthermore, the cell terminal has restricted access to the Internet, via a whitelist.

The list of accessible sites includes Moodle, through which the prison population can study, online shopping site, and other selected websites that support rehabilitation and management of daily affairs. These websites provide for example various online mental health programmes and self-help materials. The cell device also offers the use of basic office tools and the ability to read and store material and read e-books or listen audiobooks. Prisoners also have access to the website, Elements of AI:, maintained by the University of Helsinki and Reaktor Education where they can learn about artificial intelligence. A separate virtual reality (VR) pilot conducted by the prison psychologist is also provided in the Smart Prison.

Both staff and prisoners at Hämeenlinna have had ICT skills training in order to be able to take the full use of the smart system. All staff are supposed to be able to give digital guidance to prisoners. We are also collecting ongoing feedback from both staff and prisoners via the smart system to evaluate and develop the system further.

Whilst the Smart Prison Project has been piloted only in one prison, the project has accelerated the general development of digitalization in all Finland’s prisons and probation offices. The need for these services was accelerated during the outbreak of COVID-19, which provided us with a challenge to develop these services even more. In our other units we have increased the amount of joint use laptops and provided many new services including online rehabilitative programmes and possibilities to contact officials working in social, housing and financial services. Importantly, it has provided access to all the same civil services as citizens outside of prison, in line with the normality principle.

Currently Laurea University of Applied Sciences is conducting a research project on the experiences of digitalization and the change in prison culture in Hämeenlinna prison. Interviews of staff and prisoners have been done via video calls but also on site in Hämeenlinna following and observing the daily life in Smart Prison. The research is part of the DigiIn research project ( led by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. Some preliminary research by Criminal Sanctions Agency about the experiences of developing a smart prison have also been published on the International Corrections and Prisons Association’s (ICPA) website.

The major concern for implementation of technology or resistance to it is often related to the security questions in prisons. Before taking the system into use, a security audit of the system and laptops was conducted by an independent party. Prison staff and especially the admin users were instructed to monitor suspicious use of devices. Permission to use the whole whitelisted Internet websites must be requested from the prison director and all outside video calls with relatives are monitored. Prisoners also received instruction on privacy and security issues. Some might be worried that cell terminals would mean less time out of cells and less human interaction. So far, we haven’t noticed this kind of phenomena. Risks can be mitigated by providing enough meaningful live activities in prisons and motivating everybody to participate in the daily activities, which is already part of the Finnish prison concept. Since it is inevitable that prisoners have to spend some time in their cells, cell terminals provide something meaningful to do even during the “cell time”.

As stated, Criminal Sanctions Agency hopes this project will test how digitalization can support rehabilitation and modern prison culture. In the future, we will consider extending this model to other closed prisons and, therefore, digitalizing prison culture even further. The next steps will include implementing an e-mail system and Artificial Intelligence (AI) solution for the new Offender Management System. RISE AI is a system that uses Artificial Intelligence (Machine Learning) to assist sentence planning and service orienting of offenders. However, there are various ethical questions regarding use of AI including biased data-sets leading to wrong or inaccurate decisions, fairness, transparency, privacy, and GDPR questions. There will be a need for ethical guidance and new policies or probably even new legislations. We look forward to a broader Data and Digitalization Strategy in 2022 as part of the organizational change in the Criminal Sanctions Agency.

Pia Puolakka has been working for the Criminal Sanctions Agency since 2012. She started as a prison psychologist. Since 2017 she has been working in the Central Administration. There, she first worked as a senior specialist responsible for rehabilitative services including programme work, family work, and psychological and spiritual services in prisons.

In 2018 she was appointed as the project manager of the Smart Prison Project. Her current post includes developing digital services for rehabilitative purposes and leading the implementation of the smart prison system. In 2020 she started as the project manager of the RISE AI project that is developing artificial intelligence (AI) application for client work and counselling in the Criminal Sanctions Agency. In 2021 she also took the lead of the New Prison Hospital Project.

By education she is a forensic psychologist and works also as a private psychotherapist. She has done further studies in Artificial Intelligence and digitalization for the purposes of the current Smart Prison and AI projects. She is especially interested in how digital means can contribute to people’s well-being and abilities. She is a board member of the EuroPris ICT Expert Group.

Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Correctional News.