Stony floor is lined with six green metal doors. It is early noon and the doors are open. On the second last door a handwritten note kindly asks visitors to remove their shoes. The room belongs to 20 year old Dimitri Hagert, who likes to keep it tidy. Cell is simply decorated with just a metal bunk bed, tiny table and a chair. Dimitri has covered the window with a yellow cloth, so that the daylight coming in seems hazy. Crammed room is half dark even during the day. There is a much used playstation and few games on the table.
I am visiting Dimitri in the Vantaa prison, which has a section for young offenders, who are under 21. In this section of the prison, along with the narrow corridor, there is a small kitchenette, few benches and a table. There are no other furniture. One of the walls is a floor to ceiling mirror, behind it a room where two guards are keeping an eye on this section of the prison and the one next to it.
The air is thick with cigarette smoke. One of the boys is crouched to swipe the floor. Others are talking, kind of hanging out or shouting comments over the metal grill wall, behind it is another section for adult prisoners. Some of them lean to the wall to comment back.
There is space for 12 young offenders, but at the moment there are eight inmates. Youngest are only 16 years old. Dimitri has been here already eight months and has nine more left. First time offenders serve one third of their punishment inside.
“In the beginning it was difficult, I was constantly thinking how long the sentence is”, Dimitri says. “It is better not think about it too much, if you start thinking, of course it feels long. In prison, you are so edgy all the time anyway.”
Days going by slowly
Cell doors are opened in the morning bit past seven. Dimitri is usually already awake by then. Breakfast comes on a trolley, brought by an adult prisoner from another section. Dimitri has no habit of eating breakfast, but when others are still sleeping, he might clean up in the kitchen or collect rubbish. Other inmates don’t mind untidiness, but Dimitri does not like it.
“Others have different standards when it comes to cleanliness. I find it hard here.”
Instead of breakfast, Dimitri usually has some coffee, listens to music from the tv and has a smoke. There is an opportunity to go outside for an hour every day, but he does not necessarily have the desire to go out. As having a walk outside is voluntary, some inmates might spend months inside. Dimitri might play with playstation for hours an end. A game called Godfather or car games are his favorites. Sports and the gym are available in the prison once a week.
The cell doors are closed already half past four in the afternoon. Many reserve something to eat inside their rooms, otherwise the evening is long. The canteen, where inmates can buy groceries, is open once a week. Today the prison lunch consisted of beans and chicken stew, but Dimitri did not feel like having it. He often cooks something by himself, like pasta and readymade meatballs, sausage, canned meat or tuna. The selection available in the canteen is not too wide.
Dimitri works couple of times a week in the prison library, which offers some variation to his days. He covers the books with plastic and shelves them. Loaned books and returns are written on a list, the information then transferred to computer. Dimitri is paid 90 cents per hour for his work. The prisoners know each other usually by surname or by prisoner number, which is marked on the borrowing list. I notice favorites seem to be detective stories and fact books.
Dimitri is a reader himself. He started reading more during his stay in a supported school where he lived and studied from fifth grade until half way ninth grade. Before supported school, his school success wasn’t great.
“Elementary school was not a big success for me. I just did not feel like going there. I wanted to be in so many other places. I rather not comment too much what I did instead of school but I can say that all of it I should not have done. If I had skipped them, I maybe would not be sitting here.”
After difficulties, Dimitri managed to finish school with good grades and even begin senior high school. Dimitri was a quick learner, he finished the assignments in half the time. Rest of the class was spent wishing the clock would run faster. Those teachers that understood how difficult it was for Dimitri to stay still after finishing work, let him go out after the work was done.
In the end his school went so well, that it would have been smooth sailing to graduate from senior high school. But Dimitri’s life turned the other way.
”My dream is to help others”
The prison library is small, but the shelves are stacked with lots of books. One wall is covered in thick law books, they are needed, as many prisoners have court processes going on. Waiting to be shelved is a stack of soft cover books, even love stories seem to have their fans here. Dimitri shows me a room where there are books in languages like Russian and Estonian.
Dimitri has done well working in the library, so well in fact that he has gotten lot of praise from his meticulousness and sense of responsibility from both guards and prison counselors. This Spring Dimitri has also applied to study, his dream is to work with young people as a youth worker. He has already previous experience working as a peer support in a youth house.
“I can share my story with others, and make them understand they have a choice, they can themselves decide if they want to end up where I am now. For a young person, it is easier to listen to someone who has been through the same experience, not just someone who says don’t do this or that.”
Once outside, a new beginning
Dimitri says he understand how all young people go through a phase where they want to show what they can do. He himself had heard so many stories of prison, at one point he even wanted to experience himself what it was like.
“But why I am here today, I did not want to do what I did, but in that situation it was inevitable”, Dimitri says in a quiet voice. “It was not all up to me that time. Well, now I have seen what it is like in here, and it is not a nice place.”
After a long sentence Dimitri must start a new life once he gets out. Helping him is a big family: six brothers and two sisters. Dimitri is the oldest, so his word counts. He admits keeping in touch with siblings is not easy from prison.
As well as dreams of studying, Dimitri’s dreams are small: own house and maybe a horse or two.
“I am not coming back to prison. That I do not want. I try my best not to end up here again. It is all up to me, no-one can help me with that. I am confident about the future, but let’s face it, I can’t know for sure what will happen in the future.”
Editor: Anna Gustafsson