Crisis in the Prisons: Five Guidelines When Reforming the Penal System

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The high and growing rate of imprisonment in the region is not leading to lower rates of violence and crime. In other words, we know that prisons are not the solution. But if this is the default policy, then we should at least do it in the most humane way possible.

As more and more research is done on prisons, we know better than ever what works in rehabilitating and reintegrating prisoners. Authorities are starting to favor innovative models for prison management that are less punitive and that focus more on adhering to human rights standards and resocializing inmates.

This article originally appeared on the Inter-American Development Bank’s blog Sin Miedos and has been translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish original here.

I am sharing five lessons that we have learned from international evidence drawn from various studies done in countries across Latin America and from our own experience.

  1. The first lesson is that prison infrastructure should be geared towards inmate rehabilitation. If we are going to build more prisons, we should be sure that they are the best prisons possible. The photo above shows recent installations in one of the new prisons that we have helped build in Costa Rica. With these units we were looking to make the prison more dignified. The installations adhere to human rights regulations while incorporating modern standards of security, and facilitating recreational activity and training for inmates once they have completed their sentences.
  2. The second lesson is, rather than focusing on building new prisons, we should be looking at the model for intervention. In our project in Pacora in Panama, where 28 percent of the country’s young prisoners are serving their sentences, they have prioritized personal development of youth. There are over 12 different programs that inmates are assigned to according to an evaluation of their level of risk and their needs. The idea is that the young people spend the majority of their time doing activities that are productive, recreational and educational. When I had the opportunity to visit the project in Pacora, what struck me most — apart from the great work that the young people were doing — was the sense of hope present in those workshops. One of the young men told us that before, if he had been given the choice between a paintbrush and a gun, he would have chosen the gun. But now he would choose the paint brush; his dream is to become a famous artist.
  3. Another important lesson we have learned is that apart from equipping the inmates with technical skills, the key is to encourage the development of soft skills and changes in behavior. Oftentimes the barriers to reintegration in society have more to do with lack of appropriate behavior in professional environments than a lack of technical skills. This also applies to vulnerable young people outside of the prison system who very often end up turning to crime because they are unable to function in a formal professional environment.
  4. A key aspect that should not be ignored is that of prison management. Too often, corruption among the prison guards and officials allows inmates to continue committing crimes. But I have visited many prisons in the region in which the guards live and work in practically the same conditions as the inmates. They come from the same neighborhoods. We need to improve the working conditions for the guards and create a more dignified working environment, so they can contribute to the rehabilitation of the inmates. In fact, at our project in Pacora, we trained prison staff so they could effectively manage the various rehabilitation workshops. Another obstacle to prison management is the lack of information and data. In many cases, those in charge of the prisoners do not know how many people are in the prison, let alone who they are or what their needs might be. By improving the databases, we can build better-organized rehabilitation centers. Although technology can help, it’s important to remember that technology is the means, not the solution in itself.
  5. Finally, one crucial factor to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners is to forge links between their families and the private sector. A key aspect in our prison projects has been to involve the families in the psychosocial support given to inmates. Furthermore, we need to involve the private sector. First, the private sector should provide work opportunities for inmates while they are in prison. Second, it should provide job opportunities in the formal jobs market, which would help inmates develop skills essential to their reintegration. And finally, it should campaign to help businesses and people in civil society understand that prison inmates are perfectly capable of working.

We are increasingly aware of what works and what doesn’t work in the prison system, and we should put that into practice before attempting to reinvent the wheel. Although the ideal scenario would be that people don’t go to prison at all, at the moment in Latin America we have a prison population of hundreds of thousands of people whose needs must be acknowledged. Only by doing this, can we ensure that our prisons are not places where people are forgotten, but are places where people are rehabilitated and given a second chance. 

*Written by Nathalie Alvarado, the coordinator for the citizen security and justice program at the Inter-American Development Bank. This article is based on two posts she wrote following the first International Congress of Penitentiary and Prison Policies (Congreso Internacional de Política Penitenciaria y Carcelaria), which took place in Bogotá, Colombia, June 2, 2017. 

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