History of prisons in Häme Castle

The history of Finnish prisons starts with the fortresses of the Swedish Crown, ‘thief cellars’ in cities and temporary shelters in the countryside. The 17th century saw the creation of county administration and, through it, the county prison system that was based on the earlier cells of the Crown. At that time, the crown cell located in the medieval Häme Castle was also turned into a crown prison, i.e. county prison. The county prison system laid the foundation for the later prison service.

Death or rehabilitation?

Until the end of the 18th century, the primary forms of punishment for crime were capital punishment, other corporal punishment and shame punishment. Punishment could also include forced labour, fines or imprisonment. A prison sentence alone was not considered to be a sufficient deterrent. Instead, stricter punishments were deemed more efficient in preventing crime. Offenders were simply kept in prisons until their actual sentence could be enforced.

In the 18th century, the international currents of the Enlightenment began to reach Finland. Influenced by the ideas of humanity and tolerance promoted by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, imprisonment became more common than capital, corporal and shame punishment. The inmate population grew, resulting in a need for more prison capacity. New ideas inspired the reform of the penal system in the 19th century. Whereas before, the purpose of imprisonment was to detain and punish offenders, the novel aim was to reform and educate criminals through strict discipline, hard labour and education. Though capital punishment was included in the Criminal Code of Finland until 1949, it was not enforced after 1825. In the 19th century, people sentenced to death were exiled to Siberia.

At the turn of the 1830s and 1840s, the Kronoborg workhouse and correctional facility was established in Hämeenlinna and took over parts of the castle. In 1843, the workhouse and correctional facility received more space in the form of a completely new building west of the castle. The new building had eight dormitories, each intended for 12–15 inmates, meaning a total of over a hundred prisoners. Some prisoners were housed in the castle’s shared dormitories, and work rooms were located in the northern outer wall building. Offenders were sentenced to the workhouse and correctional facility, either for a definite or indefinite period, for reasons such as drunkenness, vagrancy or other disorderly conduct, or to compensate for the value of stolen goods. The purpose of the workhouse was to accustom the convicts to useful work and get them to mend their ways. The workhouse and correctional facility was shut down in the late 1860s, and both the correctional facility and the cell building completed next to it in 1871 were taken over by the newly-founded Hämeenlinna Penitentiary.

19th century novelty – cell-based prison

The prison building now open to the public is the cell building completed in 1871 and designed by architect L.I. Lindqvist – the first cell-based prison in Finland. In its time, it was a modern facility with novel heating, ventilation, plumbing, hygiene and food supply systems. The building has three floors and an additional cellar floor. The three cell floors are connected by a central corridor passing through the entire building. The main entrance is located in the middle of the building, as are the spiral staircases and prison administration facilities. Each floor has 22 barrel-vaulted cells with a floor area of about 8 m2 each. Several similar cell prisons were built in Finland in the late 19th century, in the 1880s in particular, some of which are still in use.

During the latter half of the 19th century, custodial sentences became the primary form of punishment and were carried out as penal labour, water and bread diet and prison sentences. In order to rehabilitate criminals, it was deemed best to isolate prisoners from each other and adopt a so-called progressive system. This required letting go of the old shared dormitories and building individual cells. Prisoners living alone in their cells were thought to be protected against the corrupting influence of other prisoners. In isolation, prisoners would repent and let go of their bad manners, with the support of appropriate guidance, spiritual education and work. In the progressive system, prisoners were divided into classes. In the lower classes, a prisoner would face stricter means of correction, and through hard work, good behaviour and progress, they could move on to higher classes with less strict discipline and more freedom.

Women’s prison alongside the county prison

The Hämeenlinna Penitentiary was a prison for men, where prison management was based on the then-modern ideas of solitary confinement and the progressive system. Penitentiaries were later dubbed penal labour prisons. A penal labour prison sentence was more severe than regular imprisonment – penal labour prisoners were more isolated from others and started their imprisonment in a lower class than regular prisoners. The most famous prisoners in Hämeenlinna Penitentiary were Ostrobothnian knife-fighters Isontalon Antti and Rannanjärvi. Hämeenlinna Penitentiary closed down in 1881 and the prisoners were moved to the newly-established penal labour prison in Helsinki.

A penitentiary and penal labour prison for women was established in Häme Castle in 1881 and it eventually became the Hämeenlinna Central Prison. Female convicts from all over Finland were incarcerated in the castle, which also included women sentenced to penal labour for reasons such as vagrancy, drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Several new buildings were built for the women’s prison outside the castle, including a day cell building north of the castle, outbuildings and service buildings as well as a nursery for the children of prisoner mothers.

Is prison discipline working?

When the castle was occupied by the women’s prison, the county prison previously located in the castle was moved to the premises of the former men’s penitentiary – the cell prison and correctional facility that now made up the north ward of the county prison. The majority of the county prison’s prisoners were men, but there were also some women, for whom the shared dormitories in one end of the north ward were turned into a 23-cell ward. Men were housed in the cell building. Work rooms for both men and women and a classroom for women were built in the place of former shared dormitories in the other end of the north ward. The north ward has also housed the county prison chapel, exercise hall, canteen and a meeting room where prisoners could meet people visiting them. The middle part of the building housed some staff apartments, with the largest one belonging to the prison governor. Prisoners in the county prison were remand prisoners and people serving short sentences or sentences in lieu of an unpaid fine.

Prison administration saw many reforms after the World Wars, but the development was not straightforward. In the 1940s, work days were shortened from ten hours to eight, and prisoners were increasingly able to keep some personal items with them during their imprisonment. The increasing free time created opportunities for club and study activities and exercise. In terms of disciplinary methods, flogging and isolation in dark solitary confinement cells were abandoned. In 1950, prisons began to hold AA meetings for people with substance abuse issues. In the 1950s, the more lenient criminal policy and prisoner discipline of the previous decade became stricter, but began to ease again during the 1960s. Then, all prisoners, regardless of their prisoner class, were granted the right to letters and meetings, and daily outdoor exercise became voluntary.

In the 1960s, the belief in reforming criminals through prison sentences began to weaken and attention shifted to the harmful consequences of imprisonment. The progressive system and strict disciplinary methods were deemed both inefficient and harmful, and it was believed that prisoners would develop and adapt to society better if prison conditions were as close to those in the general society as possible. The focus began to shift to preventing the adverse effects of both crime and prisons.

In the 1970s, people started to view crime as a structural problem in society, not simply as a phenomenon of individual weakness. The legal goal of reforming prisoners was abandoned in the 1970s, and the new goal was to promote the prisoner’s relocation to the free society. The progressive system and penal labour prisons came to an end, replaced by imprisonment where the punishment only consisted of deprivation of liberty. It was deemed important the prisoners’ ties to society were not completely cut off during their imprisonment. Meetings and contact with family members were made easier, and prisoners were able to pay maintenance allowance with money earned through prison work. Prisoners received the right to use their own clothes in prison, and attendance at church services became voluntary to members of the church.

Crime of its time

In the 19th century, common crimes that led to a sentence included defamation, drunkenness and fornication, among others. Women were found guilty of infanticide or, in the early 20th century, of abortion. Vagrants could be sentenced to workhouses, which in practice meant imprisonment. Vagrancy laws were in force until the late 1980s, but workhouses were abandoned already in the 1970s. Even before that, the aim was to support rather than punish vagrants, since many of them suffered from substance abuse issues. Violent crimes and theft were common in the 19th and 20th centuries just as they are today. Drug use was criminalised in Finland in the 1960s, and drug offences have since then become an increasingly common crime resulting in a conviction.

Age of prisons in Häme Castle comes to an end

In 1972, the women’s prison located in the castle was moved to new facilities in Parola, and only the county prison remained in the castle area. The age of prisons in the castle area came to an end in 1993, when prisoners from the county prison were transferred to the new Häme Prison established in Kylmäkoski.