What it’s like to work in a Finnish prison. Interview with Adnan Balic.

Books, Bullets and Bad Omens continues its excursions into the darker outer fringes of Finnish society. This time: an interview with my old buddy Adnan Balic, one of the folks who stand between convicted prisoners and the rest of us, working to ensure that released prisoners have a better chance at re-integration back into society.


What’s your background? Tell us your story, in your own words.

I was born in ´84 in the Jugoslavian republic called Bosnia and Hertsegovina. To non-natives this area is mainly known for its bloody war in the ´90s and Sarajevo Olympic Games where Finnish ski jumper Matti Nykänen won two medals. I had a normal childhood before “big boys” destroyed it and had to move to a remote area called Finland in ´93. Nowadays I call myself Bosnian-Finn and I work in a prison a project called “Prison term as a possibility”! focusing mainly on foreign prison population.

Before starting your work in the prison, did you have any personal experience of the justice system?

Not really. I haven’t had any contact professionally with the justice system although I’ve heard stories about it throughout the years mainly for its “easy” reputation. Previously I’ve worked as a supervisor with refugees for over a year.

Walk us through a day at your job, from the moment you walk in through the gates!

I started in March this year so I´m quite at the beginning. My day starts usually from 7:00am to 8:00 am if I´m in Saramäki prison. Usually there are couple of days a week when I travel to some other prison or if we have some team training in the project. If my day starts at Saramäki prison then third of the day is some kind of contact making, third may be talking to a prisoner and the rest could be meetings and discussing with my work colleague and other workers or teams. Let me note that I have to open fourteen doors before I get to my office and start my day. Not exactly what one would call `a normal office`.

Prisons are known for all the various urban legends regular people attach to them: rapes, killings, gangs etc. How realistic are their ideas? Are some of these urban legends actually true?

I would say that TV-shows have a lot to do with these kinds of imaginations or thoughts. Most famous of these being maybe OZ. Nevertheless these are places where some of the most dangerous people are being held. Saramäki was built in 2007 so I don’t think that it has a reputation as the previous Kakola- prison. On the contrary Saramäki brands itself as a modern and well sectioned and well organized prison. I would say that occasional violence does occur but not really things mentioned above. Prison hierarchy on the other hand is true and it has different levels.

Are the prisoners dangerous, on average?

Some of them are. Of course there are violent prisoners and perhaps the most dangerous ones are those that are unpredictable. A prisoner may be dangerous if he´s had a bad day or something else is troubling him. Also mix users are can be dangerous. So on average not really but one has to remember that these are prisons where you don’t have to be afraid but healthy aware.

Are there any “famous” prisoners at Saramäki? Have you came across them?

“Famous” prisoners would be those that had a lot of media coverage at some point due to the crime they committed or maybe just being a legendary prisoner. I´ve seen paper clips from the ´60-´90s about these “legends” and read their stories. Some of them are very interesting. At the moment I´m not really sure if there are famous prisoners, there could be but I haven´t come across them at least not yet.  Or have I?

How do the prisoners spend their days? What do they do with all that time?

There is a lot that one can do in prison and there are a lot of different possibilities. You can work and there are couple of cell sections for workers. You can study and finish your second degree studies, and some high school courses. There are also different rehabilitation courses and for prisoners with violent history there are anger management courses. In Saramäki there is a church and a mosque, library so if nothing else one can read for the whole time spent in prison. Gyms of course are very popular in prisons. Inmates in closed sections have to be more creative because usually their cells are closed at 16pm. There are those who choose to serve their time quietly and mainly keep to themselves the whole time which is of course possible. In short, if you are active and have the will you can “do a lot” in prison.

What has been your most challenging moment in working at Saramäki?

When you start in a project the beginning is usually a bit challenging. The project has its own sets and goals the prison has its own house rules which you have to learn so you couldn’t cause any problematic situations. Since my job is to improve foreigners conditions in prison, that will be challenging mainly because there are over 60 nationalities in Finnish prisons but a bit less than that in Saramäki prison of course. There are inmates that speak only their native language so that can create misunderstandings between them and prison staff. One of my goals is to reduce this communication barrier and be some kind of cultural in-between person during these two years that I´m assigned to this position. In this project we need partners from organizations to volunteers with different culture and language knowledge. In ten years the amount of foreign prisoners has increased by 75% in Finnish prisons and this of course challenges prisons and the staff. Prison sentences do not only affect people that are in prisons but also their families during and after their penalties.

Do you think the Finnish prison and justice systems are fair? Should they be more harsh? Less harsh?

Maybe I wouldn’t use the word fair here, is it good? Certainly it is. On the average prison sentences in Finland are quite short. Adding to that is the staff from social worker to psychologist, pastor, dentist, doctor etc. Finnish justice system provides possibilities to inmates and if you compare this to some other European prisons one could easily note that being inside is easier than being outside. Evidence that supports this claim are Finnish open prisons which in and out of themselves are quite interesting. (You can´t “escape” from an open prison – you can leave without a permission) yet you are serving prison sentence. Of course to someone like me who´s been working in prison for only couple of months and to someone from the outside things might seem not that bad in Finnish prison but the fact is that prison is a place where your freedom is if not totally taken away at least reduced quite a lot..

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