Our Awful Prisons: How They Can Be Changed

A shakedown of inmates in the main corridor of the Ellis Prison Farm, Huntsville, Texas, 1968; photograph by Danny Lyon from his 1971 book Conversations with the Dead, which has just been reissued by Phaidon. A retrospective of his work, ‘Danny Lyon: Message to the Future,’ will be on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, June 17–September 25, 2016.
Magnum Photos
A shakedown of inmates in the main corridor of the Ellis Prison Farm, Huntsville, Texas, 1968; photograph by Danny Lyon from his 1971 book Conversations with the Dead, which has just been reissued by Phaidon. A retrospective of his work, ‘Danny Lyon: Message to the Future,’ will be on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, June 17–September 25, 2016.

Some time ago, I was at a book festival in Finland. When there was a free day, the publisher who had invited me asked if there were any sights I would care to see. I said I’d like to visit some prisons. Finland locks people up at well under 10 percent the rate we do in the United States, a gap far more dramatic than all the differences between the two countries’ populations could explain. I was curious to see what prisons in this society looked like.

Kerava Prison, the first of the two that I saw, was in the countryside half an hour’s drive north of Helsinki. Its governor—by design, the title has a civilian sound—was a warm, vivacious, gray-haired woman named Kirsti Nieminen, a former prosecutor. On this wintry morning, she had about 150 prisoners in her charge, all men. Her office wall was lined with portraits of former governors, the first a heavily bearded one from the 1890s. Next to these was a framed drawing from a prisoner—Snoopy typing a letter, which she translated for me: “Dear Governor, please give me a leave!”

The rough equivalent of an American medium-security prison, Kerava had barbed-wire fences, bars on some windows, and plenty of locked doors. Some convicts worked in greenhouses outside the walls, but only if they were trusties or under guard. Most resemblance to American prisons ended there. In the greenhouses the inmates raised flowers, which were sold to the public, as were the organic vegetables they grew. As we walked, Nieminen pointed out a stream where prisoners could fish, a soccer field, a basketball court, a grain mill, and something she was particularly proud of, a barn full of rabbits and lambs. “The responsibility to take care of a creature—it’s very therapeutic,” she said. “They are always kind to you. It’s easier to talk to them.”

For an hour or so, I had coffee with half a dozen prisoners. Marko, thirty-six, wore a visor and had tattoos and said he was here for a “violent crime” that he did not specify. Jarkko, a burly twenty-six-year-old, was…


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