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Inmates in Finnish prisons can purchase both inside and outside a prison using a pre-paid card, following the completion of a project to make electronic payments available to all inmates, removing the need to handle cash.
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Eija-Riitta Nelin, project manager at the Finnish Criminal Sanctions gency (CSA), told Computer Weekly that authorities wanted to enable more prisoners to bank. “The problem has been that not all, particularly foreign, prisoners can get a bank account. This makes it more equal,” said Nelin.
As for the cards, the payments are processed using MasterCard, while the system is provided by London-based Prepaid Financial Service (PFS), which won the contract through public tenderingin 2015.
The pre-paid cards were deployed to Finland’s 26 prisons and their 3,000 inmates (with the exception of prisoners in open prisons with existing bank cards).
Prison personnel load a new inmate’s card with the cash funds they have on arrival, instead of storing that money in the prison. Subsequent payments to top up the card, with money from family members or authorities paying benefits, are paid to it directly using a personal IBAN code. This means Finnish prisons no longer accept cash from outside visitors.
On the surface, the pre-paid cards work like any bank card, but they are not tied to a bank account and no interest is paid on the money.
In addition, the card can only be used on payment terminals that can check the card’s balance in real-time. After a prisoner is released, any remaining credit on their card can be transferred to a nominated bank account.
PFS also implemented a payment processing system in Finnish prisons, which enables them to accept card payments.
Changing the law
Nelin said the benefits of a more modern system are clear, since it removes manual processes and pre-paid cards are a more secure option than cash. However, there are also some teething problems with the system.
“For example, in some municipalities their systems do not allow income support payments [for prisoners] to foreign accounts. But this should be fixed soon,” said Nelin.
Prisoners have to wait for a legislative change, expected sometime in 2017, before they can possess the cards full time.
Present law does not allow prisoners in Finland to have any means of payment in closed prisons, so currently the cards are only given to inmates when they need to pay in the prison canteen or go outside the prison on a permission of leave.
As far as Nelin is aware, the pre-paid system is the first in the world to enable inmates to use the same card both inside and outside a prison.
“At the moment, prisoners can’t check their card transactions themselves. A web portal system is planned once the initial project setup has been concluded,” said Nelin. “This would come to open prisons first.”
The whole system is part of Finland’s wider plans to increase the availability of electronic services to prisoners, which will include participation in Finnish matriculation exams when they become fully electronic by 2019.