When I imagined my time in Finland, I could have never guessed that one of the most memorable and thought provoking conversations that I would have would be with a former convict during lunch at Myllypuron middle school just outside of Helsinki in Vantaa.
I was invited by a fellow Fulbright teacher from Finland to observe the school’s “Human Library” day for 9th grade students. The concept of the Human Library originated in Denmark in 2000 at the annual Roskilde music festival. Young people had been active in a group called “Stop the Violence” and expanded the theme at the festival. Rock festivals are microcosms of society in many ways. There are people coming together from a variety of backgrounds that may not normally interact in other parts of society. At the festival they had 75 “human books” available, each book representing that individual’s experiences. It is reported that a football player began talking with a feminist and a policeman with a graffiti artist.
This concept spread across Europe and is endorsed by the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization. Myllypuron middle school has been participating for six years and it is organized by one of the social studies teachers. In talking with the organizer she explained that all of the participants coming into the school go through training about how to discuss difficult issues with students, boundaries, and safety for making the event a success. Students are placed in groups based on the individuals they would like to meet. Prior to meeting the “books” they generate questions for their conversations.
I arrived in the meeting room of participants where they were talking quietly over coffee and pastries. I was introduced to a blind person, a political activist from the “True Finns” party, a person with Asperger’s, a transgender person, a police officer, a person with Tourette’s, a Roma person, a former convict, a lesbian couple, and an astrologist. I explained what I was doing in Finland and that I would enjoy the opportunity to talk with any of them if they were willing. Shortly after that a group of students came to “check-out” their book for the next 30 minutes. I was asked to escort them to a classroom. Not even thinking twice, when I opened the classroom I proceeded to sit down with the group, thinking that I was there as a monitor of sorts. The students glanced at me strangely but I didn’t think much of it because I get a lot of strange looks as a foreigner in Finland. Within five minutes the organizer came to the room and motioned for me to leave, she explained that it was agreed upon that teachers would not be in the room while the students were talking with their “books”.
This was another example of the trust that exists within Finnish society. Trust that because these students had been prepped and the speaker had gone through training that there was no need for surveillance. Bells went off in my head about the parent calls that would be coming in for this type of event. When I asked about this, I was told that parents are aware and have not objected to the event but if they did would be free to not have their child participate. But overall, parents trust Finnish teachers to make the best choices for their students because they are viewed as professionals.
In addition, the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education explicitly states the first four values underlying basic education as “human rights, equality, democracy” and “diversity”. It goes on to state a few sentences later, “Basic education promotes responsibility, a sense of community, and respect for the rights and freedoms of the individual”. This event does all of those things in an authentic way by students engaging with community members to create mutual understanding and gives humanity to all community members.
When lunchtime rolled around, I was informed that the former convict would like to sit near me and have a conversation during lunch. Their was a table where all the participants of the day sat and across me a former convict and next to him a police officer. The juxtaposition of this former lawbreaker and peacekeeper was striking. The former convict began speaking about his crimes, without a lot of prompting. I listened intently as he described his young adult life riddled with addiction that led into dealing. One evening while under the influence of drugs he attempted killing someone in a drug deal. He reflected that he is so grateful he was not successful and that getting caught was one of the best things that could have happened to him. He also reflected on the life that he lost due to his addiction and dealing, a wife and a child who wanted nothing to do with him.
He went on to speak about his time in the Finnish prison system. He started his sentence in a closed prison. I was startled by his use of the word “closed” and asked him, “Aren’t all prisons closed?”. He then told me that a short period of time before the end of his sentence he began serving in an open prison. In this prison there were no fences or bars on windows or doors. He was required to get a job, had a curfew, had to pay for rent and food, and lastly commit to being substance free. Before he was allowed to go into the open prison system he went through counseling and substance abuse treatment.
The focus of prison in Finland and its neighboring Nordic countries is of rehabilitation. And it is working for them, according to the Atlantic, recidivism rates in the Nordic countries is 20-30% while in the United States rates are between 40-70%. Prison populations are kept small and each prisoner is connected with a “contact officer”. This person helps to guide and counsel the prisoner through their sentence. This position was made to prevent guards from only taking punitive actions against prisoners as this is taxing on inmates and the guards. Being a prison guard is taxing, in the U.S. their average life expectancy is 59. After working outside of prison without reoffending for five years the former prisoner I spoke with received a clean slate. I asked why after having a clean slate does he continue to speak about his time in prison. He told me that his life could have been so much different if he had different choices. He wants students to hear that message so that don’t have to go through what he went through.
He also mentioned that he was glad he did not have to serve in an American prison. Granted I am sure that the movies he has seen about prison are sensationalized by Hollywood but when looking at the facts of American prisons it is another area where we could learn from our international neighbors. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the United States has 5% of the world’s population but accounts for 25% of the world’s prison population and we rank number one in incarceration rates per capita. The Vera Institute, a non-profit working to make justice systems fairer, collected research in 2010 from forty states to find that the public cost per inmate was $31,286 while these same 40 states paid $11,184 per public school student. Crime has been going down for the past two decades but prison populations remain high and one of those reasons is because of the lack of social safety net for those leaving prison means many of them end up back there again. I am not suggesting that people not be sanctioned for the crimes that they commit but there is a serious problem when prisons are overcrowded and more money is being spent on inmates than students.
Lunch ended with more conversation between the ex-prisoner and the police officer. I was told that later in the day they committed to visiting more schools together to discuss how law enforcement and ex-prisoners can learn from each other. While I did not have a chance to speak with all of the human books, I heard from the organizing teacher that some students sang to the blind woman at the end of the day because they knew she loved music. There were also comments from participants about how much they learned and were able to break down stereotypes from talking with one another. It was an experience I won’t soon forget and it got me thinking if I could host a similar event with our sociology elective class.