Guatemala Prison Programs Rehabilitate 70% of Minors: Report

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A new report says more than two-thirds of all jailed youths in Guatemala are “rehabilitated” while incarcerated, a rare bright spot for the country’s oft-maligned penitentiary system that also highlights the challenges of reintegrating gang members into society. 

A Guatemalan court for minors reports that therapy sessions and workshops manage to reform 70 percent of youths being held in detention facilities, reported Prensa Libre. Ninety percent of minors not affiliated with gangs are rehabilitated, according to the court, while just 40 percent of youths who already belong to these criminal structures are reformed.

This discrepancy is due to the irrevocable allegiances youths are forced into when they join a gang, the court says. 

“It is more difficult for youths who belong to gangs to reform themselves… due to the fact that the members threaten them if they abandon the [gang] cell,” the court reported. “At the moment of entering the gang, they make pacts and receive benefits such as economic support for their family members.”

The court also noted the challenges involved in trying to reintegrating young delinquents in to the workforce, saying businesses are reluctant to provide them with job opportunities once they have completed their sentences.

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The court’s statement is an unusually promising indicator of improvement in Guatemala’s penitentiary system, at least at the juvenile level. The country’s prisons suffer from extreme overcrowding as well as institutional corruption and periodic riots that have left scores of inmates dead. Guatemala’s prison population is at nearly 300 percent the official maximum capacity, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, which is among the highest occupancy rates in Latin America.

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The report also demonstrates how rehabilitating gang members is considerably more complicated than reforming non-affiliated youths. As in neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, street gangs in Guatemala wield a strong influence over the prison facilities, and there are few ways to escape gang membership once initiated. Political and financial hurdles, in addition to a limited buy-in from the private sector, can frustrate gang prevention and reintegration initiatives.

At the same time, a lack of more precise information makes it difficult to evaluate the extent of the progress in Guatemala’s youth detention facilities. Prensa Libre’s report does not specify if the court is measuring recidivism rates or some other metric to determine whether or not a youth has been “rehabilitated.” Another problem lies in deciphering who is a full-fledged gang member and who is only indirectly aligned with the gangs. Some youths, for example, act as lookouts and errand boys for the gangs, but are not yet considered part of the gang until they complete the rites of initiation. 

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