Latin America’s prison system has long had a reputation for being corrupt, often acting as an incubator for organized crime groups and their criminal activities. But a small Central American nation is taking a different approach, one that views inmates as human beings in need of rehabilitation.
It wasn’t always this way. Before a Catholic-oriented non-governmental organization known as the Kolbe Foundation was contracted to manage Belize’s prison system in 2002, it wasn’t uncommon to see prison staff abusing inmates and prisoners harming one another with alarming frequency.
Tensions ran high, and deservedly so. Belize Central Prison lacked potable water and a functioning sewer system. Two-thirds of the 900 inmates were forced to sleep on the floor next to their own feces while others battled for one of just 300 beds available.
Conditions today, however, look very different.
Since the Kolbe Foundation took over, each of the 1,150 inmates housed at the prison — nearly half of which are Central American migrants jailed on non-violent immigration offenses — has access to one of 2,100 available beds, a functioning sewer system and a shower. The prison is now comprised of some 30 buildings used to offer inmates access to a range of rehabilitation and social programs.
“We’re not in perfect shape, but we’re light years ahead of many others in the region,” Belize Central Prison Director Virgilio Murillo told InSight Crime.
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But improved infrastructure is not the only accomplishment. Rates of criminal activity and contraband seizures are also much lower since Kolbe took over. Prison escapes, once aided by widespread corruption and decrepit infrastructure, may soon be a thing of the past. They are down from 57 in 2000 to just two last year. In 2018, prison authorities seized less than one kilogram of marijuana and only six cell phones. Seized weapons have also been cut by more than half since 2013, according to official prison data.
While the government of Belize only provides $7 per prisoner per day — the average cost per day per US prisoner, in comparison, is almost $100 — Murillo says that a strict focus on rehabilitation and viewing inmates as human beings worthy of respect has helped change the prison’s culture and reduce criminality.
Inmates now have access to addiction treatment services and can voluntarily partake in educational classes to work towards earning a primary school certificate — something many lack. There are also vocational courses teaching mechanical repair, construction, woodwork and welding, in addition to agricultural. Prisoners also host their own daily radio station while exemplary inmates serve on an advisory board that meets weekly with Murillo and his staff to inform them about inmate concerns and things they wish to see improved.
“Punitive measures don’t cut it,” Murillo said. “If you treat people like animals, then they will act like animals, but if you treat them as children of God, then look out, they’ll turn their lives around.”
This approach has helped keep prisoners from re-offending. Belize’s recidivism rate sits at around 10 percent between three and five years after inmates are released, according to Murillo. In contrast, around two-thirds of prisoners released in the United States are rearrested within three years of their release.
This rehab-oriented focus on dealing with inmates is also preventing confrontations between the 104 gang members — around 11 percent of the total prison population — that represent 16 different gang factions in the prison. Murillo says there’s only been one gang-related incident in the last five years. And of the 32 gang members released from prison since 2018, not one has re-offended or been sent back to jail.
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To be fair, Belize’s prison system — and the country as a whole — isn’t populated by gang members to the same extent as the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and is not under the de facto rule of powerful prison gangs like the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital — PCC) in Brazil.
However, “mano dura,” or heavy-handed security policies have caused prison populations to swell and conditions to deteriorate, leading to rampant corruption and at times grave human rights abuses. It’s rare that resources are put towards rehabilitation and providing inmates with the skills needed to successfully reintegrate back into society. This often leads to an endless cycle of reoffending and returning to jail.
However, Murillo says there is still room for improvement in Belize.
The Central American nation’s judicial process is slow. Over one-third of the country’s inmates are being held in pre-trial detention without being convicted of a crime. If unaddressed, this has the potential to lead to serious overcrowding, as has happened elsewhere in Latin America. This would negatively impact prison conditions given the limited resources the Kolbe Foundation is currently working with.
Former prisoners are also stigmatized for their past mistakes and lack sufficient support once released, much like other prisoners in Latin America. They often lack access to job opportunities — many business owners don’t want to hire ex-convicts — or transitional assistance, and cannot find support in halfway houses because such services lack the capacity to take in more than a few individuals.
“Prisoners leave but society has marked them as criminals for life,” Murillo said. “We need to do a better job of educating society about the fact that people make mistakes and deserve a second chance.”
Still, the adjustments made to Belize’s prison system are a bright spot in a region where prisons have done more to foster and promote crime than they have to rehabilitate those who populate them.