Cooperation and education in prison: A policy against the tide in the Latin American penitentiary crisis
Prison education is a fundamental human right and contributes to democratisation processes in Latin American countries. However, due to the current penitentiary crisis in Latin America (overcrowding, violence, drug dealing etc.), promoting education in prison is a difficult task. Conditions are further exacerbated by structural causes such as failures of the legal system in terms of viewing punishment as an ideology and the presence of institutional contradictions. Evoking Stephen Duguid’s assertion of the particular effectiveness of education programmes for high-risk offenders, the author of this article questions existing simplistic views which link education to recidivism in the Latin American context. A few years ago, the author was involved in conducting a survey in the context of EUROsociAL II, a programme set up by the European Commission aiming to consolidate cooperation between Latin America and the European Union on policy dialogue related to social cohesion. The purpose of the research was to understand and compare current prison education policies and to evaluate their effectiveness. This article complements the findings of that survey with insights gathered through a series of workshops and collective studies carried out with penitentiary authorities in Latin America. Despite a number of deep-rooted problems troubling this world region, the author is able to identify vibrant and encouraging practices of prison education. In order to reinforce these practices, he makes a case for calibrating education policies with prison-specific strategies, underlining the need for cooperation among different actors and institutions in prison education and hence for a reform of legal systems in the region.
Keywordsprison education Latin America EUROsociAL adult and lifelong education
Coopération et éducation en prison : une politique à contre-courant dans la crise pénitentiaire latino-américaine – L’éducation en prison est un droit humain fondamental et contribue aux processus de démocratisation dans les pays d’Amérique latine. Cependant, en raison de la crise pénitentiaire actuelle en Amérique latine (surpeuplement, violence, trafic de drogue, etc.), promouvoir l’éducation en prison est une tâche difficile. Les conditions sont exacerbées par des causes structurelles telles que les défaillances du système juridique et l’idéologie de la punition ainsi que l’existence de contradictions institutionnelles. Evoquant l’affirmation de Stephen Duguid de l’efficacité particulière des programmes d’éducation pour les délinquants à haut risque, l’auteur de cet article interroge les points de vue simplistes qui associent l’éducation à la récidive dans le contexte latino-américain. Il y a quelques années, l’auteur participait à une enquête dans le cadre d’EUROsociAL II, un programme mis en place par la Commission européenne pour consolider la coopération entre l’Amérique latine et l’Union européenne en matière de dialogue politique sur la cohésion sociale. L’objectif de l’enquête était de comprendre et de comparer les politiques actuelles en matière d’éducation en prison et d’évaluer leur efficacité. Cet article complète les conclusions de cette enquête avec des informations recueillies lors d’une série d’ateliers et d’études collectives menées avec les autorités pénitentiaires d’Amérique latine. En dépit d’un certain nombre de problèmes profondément enracinés dans cette région du monde, l’auteur a identifié des pratiques vibrantes et encourageantes en matière d’éducation dans les prisons. Afin de renforcer ces pratiques, il plaide en faveur d’un ajustement des politiques éducatives avec des stratégies spécifiques aux prisons, soulignant la nécessité d’une coopération entre les différents acteurs et institutions de l’éducation pénitentiaire et donc d’une réforme des systèmes juridiques de la région.
Cooperación y educación en las prisiones: una política a contra corriente en la crisis penitenciaria latinoamericana – La educación en prisiones es un derecho humano fundamental y contribuye a los procesos de democratización en los países de América Latina. Sin embargo, debido a la actual crisis penitenciaria en América Latina (sobrepoblación, violencia, tráfico de drogas, etc.), promover la educación en la cárcel es una tarea difícil. Las condiciones se agravan aún más por causas estructurales como fallas del sistema de justicia; la ideología punitiva y las grandes contradicciones institucionales. Evocando la afirmación de Stephen Duguid sobre la efectividad particular de los programas de educación para delincuentes de alto riesgo, el autor de este artículo cuestiona los puntos de vista simplistas existentes que vinculan la educación con la reincidencia en el contexto latinoamericano. Hace unos años, el autor participó en la realización de una investigación en el contexto de EUROsociAL II, un programa creado por la Comisión Europea con el objetivo de consolidar la cooperación entre América Latina y la Unión Europea sobre el diálogo político relacionado con la cohesión social. El propósito de la investigación fue comprender y comparar las políticas actuales de educación en prisión y evaluar su efectividad. Este artículo complementa los hallazgos de esa investigación con ideas recopiladas a través de una serie de talleres y estudios colectivos llevados a cabo con autoridades penitenciarias en América Latina. A pesar de una serie de problemas profundamente arraigados que preocupan a esta región del mundo, el autor identificó las prácticas vibrantes y alentadoras de la educación en prisión. Para reforzar estas prácticas, defiende la integración de las políticas educativas con estrategias específicas para las cárceles, subrayando la necesidad de cooperación entre los diferentes actores e instituciones en la educación penitenciaria y, por lo tanto, para una reforma de los sistemas legales en la región.
The aim of this article is to analyse the main elements of the education policies which are currently being applied in Latin American prisons. In order to achieve this task, I begin with an overview of experiences and findings from an earlier study I was involved in. Next, I provide some contextual background information on the penitentiary crisis (overcrowding, violence, drug dealing, etc.), which has been troubling this continent since the 1990s. After identifying some of the trends governments are following to deal with the penitentiary crisis, such as private intervention and certification, I present a number of successful strategies which have been developed for prison education in recent years. I also point out evidence of the many contradictions and limits which are hampering Latin American penitentiary institutions in the pursuit of their educational endeavours. With these conditions in mind, I then propose some key areas of cooperation for the development of rehabilitation programmes. I also suggest a number of general measures aimed at overcoming the problems of these penitentiary systems.
The work of education in prison is inextricably bound up with larger issues in penal policy (Warner 2016, p. 1).
Experiences and findings from an earlier study
A few years ago, I was involved in conducting a survey, funded by EUROsociAL II,1 to investigate current prison education policies in Latin America. Our research team opted for a mixed-methods approach in educational research in order to identify aspects more accurately by approaching our topic from different perspectives. Then, we (the EUROsociAL team) gathered documents, sent out a questionnaire, conducted interviews, organised discussion groups and visited a number of representative prisons. In my capacity as an EUROsociAL expert, I wrote up the diagnostic report (Rangel 2013). In this article, I update and complement this research with new elements and analyse them from academic and theoretical perspectives.2
In total, there were 11 Latin American countries included in the study: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, México, El Salvador, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador, Panama and Peru. All these countries provided us with their respective national policy documents and legal acts; they sent officials to the discussion groups organised by our team and distributed our questionnaires on prison education policies to prison authorities. In addition, we conducted visits to prisons in 7 countries (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, El Salvador and Uruguay), and in 2013–2014, we organised a series of intergovernmental discussion groups. We opted for focus discussion groups rather than formal meetings between officials, which turned out to be helpful. These meetings and several on-site observations enabled us to approach and process the information available in the official documents in an informed and unbiased manner.
Methodologically speaking, the focus discussion groups we organised to enable governmental officials from different Latin American countries to network among each other were very productive, because participants presented programmes they had developed in their own countries. In doing so, they mentioned the specific problems they had come up against on the way to achieving these programmes. This is relevant, since they had been unwilling to fill in our questionnaires asking about these kinds of issues; information we had hoped would help us grasp their policies on prison education. Penitentiary institutions are generally hesitant to talk openly about problems and critiques concerning their work. This is understandable, since they are under considerable pressure from the media and public opinion in the context of the penitentiary crisis. Therefore, the focus discussion groups turned out to be particularly useful for grasping policy issues, since the participating officials expressed personal views, rather than reproducing institutional discourse.
The workshops, which featured presentations and discussions, showed that the success of any programme was beyond the notion of “best practices”; rather, it was the result of complex institutional work and coordination among professionals. But even then, a good programme only stands a chance if public policies provide a coherent framework within which it can function properly.
Despite the diversity of the countries and regions constituting Latin America, our research team identified striking similarities across the participating countries’ penitentiary systems (as mentioned in the focus discussion groups). These resemblances appear to be the product of the parallel development stages of their penitentiary systems.
The Latin American context
In order to understand the context of prison education in Latin America, it is necessary to acknowledge that Latin American countries are struggling with systemic penitentiary problems. Prison overcrowding is one of the key factors that degrade prison conditions. This congestion has become a structurally persistent problem due to a rise in the number of offenders being incarcerated. Prison populations have increased considerably during recent years, doubling in some countries (Rangel 2009). Sadly, this growing pattern continues. All Latin American countries have prison populations that largely surpass their capacities. Overcrowding is already widely recognised as a major cause of violent incidents, and it is also a cause of service underprovision, e.g. in healthcare. As Didier Fassin (2017) underlines, far from protecting society, overcrowded prisons weaken it. Often, overcrowding is also the main reason used to deny inmates educational services. However, despite the fact that research has already established that overcrowding is a negative factor for societal well-being, prison populations are still growing due to a punishment strategy which fosters a trend of massive and pre-trial incarceration.
The fundamental problem in Latin America is that its criminal justice systems have structural problems. Indeed, most inmates are remanded in custody without trial.3 In terms of prison education, this has considerable consequences because in most Latin American countries, remanded prisoners are denied education services.
However, instead of dissuading criminals from offending the law, massive incarceration has increased violence, and the number of crimes being committed is rising, not least due to the formation of criminal gangs in prisons (Dudley and Bargent 2017). In this context, a human rights crisis is taking place in some Latin American prisons. Since the relationship between human rights and democracy is crucial, as pointed out by Norberto Bobbio (1991), Latin American countries need to address this crisis in order to build democratic institutions; they need to recognise prisons as democratic institutions. Prison education is a crucial policy for that recognition and should be understood as a basic human right.
The recognition of human rights in Latin America has been a slow process. The independence of criminal justice systems is an essential dimension of democracy that ensures equal judiciary processes, transparency, and the democratic governance of penitentiary systems. Efforts to reduce inmates’ vulnerability to being recruited by gangs, thereby entering a downward spiral, could begin by offering inmates education programmes with a long-term view to reintegrating them into society.
Didier Ball promotes the analysis of education policy in order to unveil the ideology behind it (Ball 1990). Throughout our research for the EUROsociAL study (Rangel 2009), it became clear that, despite the political will to improve the penitentiary system, the prevailing ideology promotes punishment. This is reflected in the media, where punitive imagery suggests that incarceration is the solution to combating crime that is observed at different levels throughout the continent. Politicians and lawmakers now stipulate hard-line sentences of greater lengths, minimising options for early discharge, with the aim of deterring offenders from reoffending. For example, in Peru, new stricter legislation introduced in 2013 (GoP 2013) excludes convicted prisoners from being eligible for conditional early release. As a result, their prison population continues to grow (INPE 2016).
Thus, Latin American prison education professionals cannot adopt this position, since it contradicts the purpose of their work. The challenge in Latin America is to build criminal justice institutions centred on social reintegration through education.
it is this whole technology of power over the body that the technology of the “soul” – that of the educationalists, psychologists and psychiatrists – fails either to conceal or to compensate, for the simple reason that it is one of its tools (Foucault 1975, p. 30).
One offence which has considerably increased overcrowding is drug trafficking, which has become a phenomenon that has deepened the punitive imagery perceived by the general public. In fact, there has been a demonisation of this crime, already resulting in incarceration for possession or having any link with drugs. As mentioned in several studies (CNDH 2016; México Evalúa 2012), minor drug offences are highly and disproportionately punished in Latin America.4 That is why penal sanctions (mitigations of punishment) should evolve, as Jean Bérard and Jean-Marie Delarue (2016) point out. Indeed, prison sentences should eventually be reduced.
Consequently, the legal rights of those inmates who cannot afford mitigations of punishment are violated. This adds to experts’ critique of the system in the prison education field.
Conventional responses to the penitentiary crisis
The penitentiary crisis should be understood as an institutional and social challenge rather than regarding it as a sensationalistic Latin American cliché. How do the authorities respond to the penitentiary crisis in Latin America? In the course of our research for the EUROsociAL study, we identified two main conventional tendencies, which are often convergent: (a) the privatisation of prisons and the adoption of accreditation procedures (certifying compliance with internationally accepted standards) and business administration; (b) priority given to employment contracts for inmates, thereby prioritising work over education.
Privatisation and accreditation
During a focus group meeting held in Santiago de Chile in the context of our study, organisers from EUROsociALII provided a specialist to conduct an information session. However, the entire workshop demonstrated the problems of private prisons.
For-profit institutions tend to be more violent and to provide fewer opportunities to prisoners for education and rehabilitative treatment (Smith 2016).
In Mexico, privatisation as a policy was launched in 2010 (GoM 2010) and became supported by law in 2011 (GoM 2011). Since then, contracts have been awarded to build prison facilities with services aiming to improve prisons. However, according to a study of a group of academics and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) (Documenta et al. 2016), the privatisation process in Mexico is far from improving prisons: this policy shows a lack of transparency, the deterioration of services for prisoners, and the violation of prisoner rights. On top of this, private prisons are significantly more expensive for the government to run; in fact, on average ten times more.7 In other words, some authorities are now building extremely expensive complexes with inadequate services.8 Significantly, Coresol, an education organisation in Chile, has complained about the obstacles of working with private prisons (INDH 2014, p. 125).
In 2016, twelve Mexican penitentiaries were accredited by the American Correctional Association (ACA) and five penitentiaries were re-accredited. These accreditations took place under the Mérida Initiative framework, which is a bilateral security cooperation agreement between Mexico and the United States. The prison must meet mandatory standards in the following areas: (1) safety, security, order, nutrition and health care; (2) reinsertion programmes and activities; (3) administration and management; and (4) justice (US Embassy 2016). However, studies have shown that these ACA accreditations of Mexican prisons do not improve transparency, the quality of services or humans rights (Documenta et al. 2016).
Work and education in prison
Indeed, skills to integrate oneself into the work force are important after release. In study visits I made to Latin America in the past decade, I have seen a growing number of factories in prisons. The authorities proudly show us the inmates’ work. I have already written extensively on the benefit of work in prisons, in cases where work is providing informal training with the objective of future workforce integration (Rangel 2017). In this vein, Kofi Poku Quan-Baffour and Britta Zawada say that prison education offers
follow-up study of ex-prisoners who had completed vocational programmes while incarcerated indicates that those aspects of the programmes that had the most impact on rehabilitation were not necessarily the specific knowledge and skills acquired, but rather those dimensions of the educational process that emphasised human development (Boulaine and Meunier 1986).
However, what we critique in Latin America is work for entrepreneurial profit. In many cases, inmates are in fact being exploited for cheap labour, and salaries are so low that they cannot save up anything for their post-release lives. In addition, several fees/contributions are deducted from inmates’ pay cheques. In Argentina, for example, inmates need to pay 10% of their salary for crime victims, 35% for meals, 25% for facility services, and 30% for a release fund (SNEEP 2016). It has been reported that in Peru, many inmates are supporting their families with their prison salaries, and that prisoners in Mexico also pay informal fees. The personal monetary needs of inmates must also be considered.
the provision of knowledge and skills for employment and self-employment through entrepreneurial activities (Quan-Baffour and Zawada 2012, p. 73).
In the era of scarce funds, it is not surprising that prison authorities try to procure resources through contracts with private companies. However, as some countries’ representatives explained to us in the context of the EUROsociAL study, it is difficult to obtain money from those companies for the services and even for the energy that they use.9 The adoption of private work contracts therefore converts prisons into factories, which do not necessarily generate significant profits for either prisons or inmates.
While work itself is certainly not a negative thing, the exploitation of inmates definitely is. Prison authorities should reconcile work and education activities, and give priority to non-formal and formal training programmes, which are useful for inmates’ post-release lives (Rangel 2017). In this vein, it is worth mentioning that many modest workshops have been established, for instance in Tijuana, Mexico, which help inmates gain employability or, as we saw, even start a small business, from handcrafting to carpentry (Rangel 2013).
Education policies in prison, against the tide
Overcoming institutional contradictions and limits
During our research for the EUROsociAL study, we witnessed many institutional contradictions, even within the terminology each prison employs. Indeed, most countries have a technocratic terminology, which contradicts the punishment policies they are practising. Argentina uses “context of confinement” [contexto de encierro], which highlights the political correctness of prisons. Only a few authorities keep the classic term cárcel [jail]. Some administrations employ the terms “readaptation” (Mexico), “rehabilitation” (Dominican Republic), “reinsertion” (Chile), or “reeducate and resocialise” (Peru).10 The profuse use of the prefix re- implies a “second chance” for inmates, but often prisoners do not have a first one to begin with, since they grew up in poverty and lack adequate education. For example, in Mexico, 56% of inmates said that they quit school early to go to work (i.e. for economic reasons, CIDE 2012). As Kaia Stern insists, these kinds of euphemisms are distorting reality (Stern 2015).
The perception of prisons is negative in Latin America. As part of that perception, people subscribe to the idea that prison is a “crime school”. However, we saw that some administrations (such as those in Panama and Mexico) fail to classify11 prisoners in terms of their security risk and needs.12 As mentioned earlier, what has led to this situation is massive and indiscriminate incarceration following the implementation of crackdown penal legislation. The perception of prison as a reforming institution is low, even in countries where prisons are less densely populated, such as in Chile.
In this context, I identified some critical organisational problems: (a) a lack of coordination between ministries and institutions. Education programmes are often organised by at least two entities (often the ministries of justice and education), and (b) a lack of continuity. Policies are subject to the ruling party and even to the personal preferences of authorities. However, due to the fact that local and national governing authorities are under scrutiny and, as elaborated above, prisons are in crisis, prison authorities are frequently used as scapegoats, often being replaced and even accused of committing crimes.13 As a result, education and rehabilitation programmes are frequently changed or interrupted (Rangel 2009). Indeed, we witnessed many interesting education activities, but they were isolated and many did not have continuity.
After identifying the issues at hand, I designed a protocol for inter-institutional cooperation to tackle these problems (Rangel 2015a). The design of this protocol is based on workshops and focus group meetings held in the context of the EUROsociAL study,14 and continuous dialogue with the prison authorities of Latin American countries. Since some authorities were reluctant to identify or disclose their problems, I gathered information from participants during the workshops and meetings. My protocol provides an analysis of different aspects of the situation (including security, potential cooperation partners, national and international norms, post-penitentiary work, etc.) and suggests strategies to overcome friction and competition between institutions. For example, the ministry of education is often overshadowed by more powerful government entities. In our research for the EUROsociAL study, we witnessed this fact in Argentina and Mexico. This protocol (Rangel 2015a) was not compulsory for countries participating in the EUROsociAL II programme (2011–2016), though it could be used as a tool for institutional work on prison education.
The protocol I designed aims to overcome the obstacles and hierarchies of highly bureaucratic, and sometimes militarised, systems. Indeed, some Latin American countries have military regulations with a very rigid structure.16 Throughout the region, our research team identified a similar, general pattern: the penitentiary system is hyper-normative and highly bureaucratic, and undertaking educational activities often requires the development and use of “procedural manuals” (INPE 2015). It is worth mentioning that I am referring here to excessive administrative requirements for carrying out educational activities.17 It must be recognised that some countries, such as Mexico and Panama, lack the required procedures to classify prisoners according to their criminal profile. In other words, while essential procedures are sometimes missing, there is an excess of administrative procedures.
“guards impose a sort of silencing power over education activities” (personal communication during a workshop held in Montevideo in 2016).
Pablo Latapi (2009) maintains that adult education projects are integrated into political and social contexts by “political insertion of the educational action”. In the case of prison education, policies are often at odds with regional dominant tendencies. In our research for the EUROsociAL study, we saw all kinds of obstacles, ranging from discursive to organisational obstructions. At the beginning of our research, some penitentiary directors were reluctant to talk, but gradually opened up and discussed obstacles thwarting education programmes explicitly.
We sent our questionnaire to the penitentiary director or representative of each participating country. We asked about obstacles and problems facing education programmes. The majority of countries did not answer these questions and, during the first focus group session, some representatives (from Costa Rica, Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico) asked not to tackle problems of the penitentiary system. Some argued that they did not have the power to solve them; others argued that the matter was too sensitive for them to handle. However, in subsequent sessions, all participants talked about general prison problems. During the workshops, they understood the utility of debating the problems that affect education programmes
Dean Garratt and Gillian Forrester argue that education policies are influenced by values, attitudes and beliefs (Garratt and Forrester 2012, p. 9). Prison education policies in Latin America are subject to the ideological struggle with punishment. That is why the issue is not politically neutral. So how can prison education advance against such a tide?
Well, the first approach is by legal means. It is important to note that prison education is a legally established right in many countries in the region, and a significant legal evolution occurred in the past 15 years. Due to the embryonic state of democratic institutions in Latin America (particularly those related to the criminal justice systems),18 there is still a huge gap between law and reality, as pointed out by Charles Tilly (2007). Despite this fact, authorities, professionals and NGOs are pressing to adopt a legal framework in order to support their prison education work. Peru, for example, established a legal basis and an administrative structure for prison education by setting up a National Pentitentiary Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario; INPE) in Lima (MoJ 2007). Education is sometimes referred to in legal documents as a rehabilitation programme (e.g. in Mexico), while other countries, such as Argentina and Brazil, recently established legal frameworks for prison education. Mexico also adopted a constitutional reform based on human rights in 2008 (GoM 2008).
The second approach, besides building a legal framework to promote prison education, is to promote education through incentive means. Indeed, most Latin American countries have established a sentence reduction reward for inmates enrolled in education programmes. I have noted elsewhere (Rangel 2009) that sometimes this reward is used in a bureaucratic way. However, this legal tool remains an incentive for educational activities. One example is Brazil, where a popular programme was implemented by which inmates who read a book are able to reduce their sentences by four days. Each prisoner is allowed a period of up to 30 days to read a literary work.19
One of the consequences of the dramatic growth in prison population experienced in most Latin American countries is the difficulty of increasing participation in education activities. One exception is Argentina, where the prison population increased by only 23% from 2006 to 2015 (SNEEP 2016); as a result, this country was able to increase education coverage in prisons from 23% to 63% in 2016 (SNEEP 2016). This proves that with a relatively stable prison population, it would be possible for a team working at a consistent pace to create education programmes and increase education coverage in prison.
Prison administrators want to understand the need for prison education and, more precisely, how they can justify this need to prison authorities in order to obtain funding. Prison authorities, in turn, also look for legitimacy. Indeed, some authorities express their concern about the lack of studies and data to justify and implement education programmes. Representatives from Ecuador and El Salvador, for example, expressed this view during a regional EUROsociAL II meeting among penitentiary authorities held in Buenos Aires in 2013. They argued that they needed data which proved the positive outcomes of these programmes. In fact, some countries, such as Uruguay, do conduct these kinds of studies for the purpose of having a precise diagnostic of their penitentiary system (INR 2016).
This approach is exemplified by Margaret Giles, Lisa Paris and Jacqui Whale, who investigated the role of art education in adult prisons in Western Australia, and found that
issues of curriculum and pedagogy, the complexity of predicting behaviour, the utility and limitations of case studies (Duguid et al. 1996, p. 74).
However, other cases in Latin America have encouraging results; for example, in 2015, the recidivism rate of Argentinian inmates who completed higher education dropped from 40% (national average) to 15% (SNEEP 2016). This trend is important, because it means that 85% of released inmates did not reoffend. It could be interpreted as meaning that recidivism diminishes as long as inmates follow consistent and long-term education programmes.
(1) … measurable outcomes are too narrow and do not reflect the complex but less quantifiable benefits to the individual and the community of studying art in prison, and (2) better measures of all impacts of art studies in prisons are needed, including qualitative and humanitarian aspects (Giles 2016, p. 689).
Moreover, some penitentiary authorities express the relativity of the concept of recidivism in Latin America. Indeed, it is difficult to identify a recidivist in a system where offenders are often either not caught by inefficient police forces or not identified as recidivist by defective administrative systems. In fact, identification is a major issue, since thousands of inmates in Brazil and Mexico do not have a birth certificate, or any other basic identification document (ID). This absence of IDs represents social and economic exclusion that denies real citizenship (Rangel 2015b). For example, the Mexican Ministry of Education strictly requires an ID to enrol inmates in prison education. In an interview with prison authorities during a visit to a prison complex in Islas Marias, Mexico, in 2013, we were told about the exclusion of inmates due to their lacking this document.21 In such cases, more institutional flexibility is needed.
In the course of our research, we also saw the necessity of examining the context of recidivism. For example, in Mexico, federal prisons reported a growing tendency of recidivism (CNDH 2016). However, most of the recidivists (60% in 2015; CNDH 2016) are in jail for crimes related to drugs, and even, as mentioned earlier, for the possession of small amounts of narcotics. In this case, recidivism demonstrates the contradictions of a problem more related to public health than to the ferocious and merciless war against drugs undertaken by the Mexican government, among others. In fact, according to the Mexican Federal Penal Code (Codigo Penal Federal), this crime is characterised as a “crime against health” (delitos contra la salud). Some critics are demanding a policy change and the adoption of treatment programmes for drug dependency instead of the current hard-lined punishment regime.
Duguid asserts that education programmes are “particularly effective with a great many high-risk offenders” (Duguid 1998, p. 60). This finding is very important. However, for other kinds of offenders, a complementary special treatment is indispensable, such as for sex offenders. This is crucial, since this type of offence is prevalent in certain countries, such as Peru.22 In Canada, an official report states that treating sex offenders considerably diminishes their recidivism (Hanson et al. 2009). Clearly, this kind of therapeutic treatment is needed in Latin America.
However, the therapeutic approach to reducing recidivism in sex offenders and incarcerated drug addicts is not popular in Latin America. In a debate we witnessed among some government officials from the field of education in the context of EUROsociAL meetings, they expressed their distrust of psychological treatment, which they considered to be opposed or counterproductive to the educational approach. Some reports (e.g. Muñoz 2009) even depict this treatment as a deflected type of education. This discourse is supposedly backed by the theories of Foucault, mentioned earlier, and Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman (e.g. Goffman 1961). The people who adopt this discourse, considering the therapeutic approach a sign of repression (for example, representatives from Argentina), even avoid the term inmate (interno). However, some prisoners involved in a theatre activity explained this experience as a powerful process that not only kept them away from drugs, but also enabled them to reflect about their lives and to become honest with themselves (testimony of prisoners participating in a Mexican prison theatre company, Compañía de Teatro Penitenciario (CTP) Santa Martha Acatitla, in 2015). This is not repression, but its opposite. Here the education process is linked with psychological development.
It is worth considering that an inmate who has accomplished an education programme will still have social integration problems if his or her criminal behaviour persists. As a prison education promoter, I fight against prejudices towards prisoners; however, we can neither victimise nor unconditionally justify their conduct. As Jean Trounstine (2008) put it, discussion allows for a kind of distancing, a gained perspective. This is important not only for sex offenders, but also for others who have committed offences such as domestic violence, which is also widespread in Latin America.23 Respect for women is certainly part of the broad education values needed in society, not only in jail. Why not integrate this value into a prison curriculum?
Prisoners with mental health problems also challenge the concept of recidivism. Indeed, Mexico, for example, reports 4,476 inmates with mental health problems (CNDH 2015). As we saw in some countries in the course of our EUROsociAL research, there is a lack of in-prison psychological services and there are not enough mental health institutions available to the general population. This is why an individual follow-up should be carefully developed in prisons as well as after release.
Cooperative work is essential for prison education. Beyond administrative cooperation, we detected the need for a sense of community, and the foundations for skilful cooperation lie in learning to listen well and engaging in discussion (Sennett 2012). People can indeed cooperate in a prison environment. Uruguay, for instance, is developing a more integral approach by having different (penitential and non-penitential) institutions working together (INR 2016). Also, a well-organised group of professionals can share information and experience in order to improve services; this was made evident during an international seminar I attended in Montevideo in 2016, entitled “Bases para una estrategia nacional para personas en conflicto con la ley” [Bases for a national strategy for people in conflict with the law]. Professionals from different areas (sports, chess, health, etc.) can develop cooperative work. Prison collaboration should be pedagogical, not only organisational, as Philippe Meirieu pointed out in his concluding remarks on a workshop on the innovation of education practices (Meirieu 2015).
Indeed, while we are witnessing a devaluation of non-formal education, this type of learning actually has the potential of being helpful in motivating prisoners. This is why formal and non-formal education in Latin American prisons should join forces. Indeed, in 2009, out of 469,546 inmates in Brazil (mainly youth aged between 18 and 29), 270,000 were illiterate or lacked basic education. Only 39,653 went through education programmes in prison (i.e., less than 10%) (InfoPen 2016). So are Latin American countries rehabilitating prisoners through education? Unfortunately, despite the efforts, this goal is far from being achieved. For example, in Peru, some facilities lack these services due to deficient infrastructure or an insufficient number of teachers, resulting in more than half of the inmates being released not even accomplishing lower secondary (K–9) level (INPE 2016). Nevertheless, there have been significant developments in Argentina, for example, where 60% of their 56,000 inmates were enrolled in educational activities in 2013 (SNEEP 2016).
education in prison tends to be limited when there is an over-emphasis on accredited as opposed to non-accredited courses and activities (Warner 2016, p. 13).
During our visits to prisons, we witnessed a positive interplay between artistic activities and formal education. Some artistic projects are not only successful but also meaningful for inmates. For example, the Compañía de Teatro Penitenciario (CTP), mentioned earlier, is a well-established theatre company made up of 22 inmate actors and coordinated by “Foro Shakespeare”, an artistic NGO in Mexico City. This company presents successful stagings on the commercial billboard. Membership in this group represents a process of intensive training, discipline and physical and reflective work. Thus, an education process takes place, and it works so well that even ex-convicts continue to work for this group. Contrary to the findings of Giles et al. (2016), the question of recidivism is not even evoked here.
Within the framework of this programme, 245 inmates were enrolled in university programmes in 2016, almost all of them (95%) in law (PESCER 2016). During my research, an official of the Chilean Ministry of Justice confronted me to say that in his country, universities were conservative and showed little interest in cooperating with prisons (personal communication during an EUROsociAL II meeting held in Santiago de Chile in 2014). However, overall, we found successful and promising initiatives. It is imperative that prisons open up to allow more research, which could contribute to policy development. That is why it is so important to be open to scrutiny and criticism. Universities also have to be open to collaborative research and professional intervention. A good example is a research project we started in 2017 with Panama’s authorities and universities network, led by Panama’s Metropolitan University of Education, Science and Technology (UMECIT).
[I]n December 2004, the UACM and the DGPRS signed a collaboration agreement with the purpose of providing programs of higher education, research, dissemination of culture and university extension to internal people wishing to initiate, continue or conclude their higher level studies. To this end, appropriate programs were structured to such circumstances” (Pontones and Farías 2018, p. 214).
Cooperation between countries in this field is also needed and makes sense, since their problems are similar and their institutions often face the same difficulties. Taking this into consideration, EUROsociAL I tried to promote not only cooperation between European countries, but also cooperation among Latin American countries. A network was created and some governments participated in projects ranging from legal development to guard training. Sadly, the network almost disappeared after European coordination and funding expired in 2010. This situation demonstrates the difficulties of Latin American countries to undertake regional cooperation among themselves.
The case of the Dominican Republic is unusual, This country has been building new facilities since the 1990s and adopted a new “penitentiary management model”, which is allegedly centred on work, education and guard training (Paniagua 2017). The positive features of this policy are its continuity and that the Attorney General’s Office coordinates this programme. Dominican authorities claim this programme is a model for the region; indeed, representatives from both Ecuador and Nicaragua informed us that they also adopted this model. This is unique, since Latin American countries tend to try to imitate European countries (especially Spain, in recent years)24 or the United States. Borrowing education policies in itself rarely ends in success; what is decisive for making them work is legitimatising other related policies (Halpin and Troyna 1995). In this context, borrowing actually means adopting a more prestigious model in order to gain legitimacy. As I pointed out earlier, education policies should be developed democratically by local actors in order to make meaning for learners (Rangel 2015c). In this sense, education specialists plead for cooperation between policies rather than borrowing or imposing them.
Regarding curriculum, we observed a slow evolution of courses specifically developed for prison education. Most countries utilised not only conventional content, but also sometimes even material designed for children. Colombia developed a model for prison education organised with curriculum modules designed by a local university. I witnessed its inauguration and training workshops; however, this programme has since been changed by the new administration. The same problem was identified in Mexico, where the federal government imposed a special curriculum for federal prisons, the implementation of which is discontinuous. Other countries such as Argentina are adapting curricula for the purpose of prison education. As Tony Gaskew notes, pedagogy of prison education should consider prisoners’ marginal social conditions (Gaskew 2015). This is essential in the Latin American context.
Indeed, although governments seem to support policies, we insist that there is a need to narrow the gap between policy and practice. For instance, it is hard to believe that a government is committed to adult education if it does not increase funding and does not even invest in teachers. For example, in Mexico teachers for adult education are volunteers (meaning not paid, or, at most, symbolically remunerated by the National Institute for Adult Education [Instituto Nacional para la Educación de los Adultos; INEA]). Authorities even openly avoid the term “teachers” in order to prevent union or salary demands (personal communication during a meeting with officials of INEA in 2013).
called for adult education to be recognised as a human right, and for binding minimum levels of national education budgets devoted to adult literacy and lifelong learning (UIL 2010, p. 6).
Prison education is even more marginal than adult education. Many teachers we met pointed out the lack of institutional support. Prisons in some countries, such as Peru, cooperate with their Ministry of Education in order to obtain special training for staff involved in prison education. This kind of cooperation is desirable and, despite the differences between penitentiary systems, I would suggest that training institutions for guards could contribute to this effort of training teachers in all Latin American countries.
Prison guards’ level of education is also relevant. Most Latin American countries have training and even specialised institutes centred on security skills. However, as a result of the penitentiary crisis and overcrowded prisons, the number of guards is insufficient. Some countries, like Mexico, still require their guards to only have completed lower secondary (or K–9) level, which is clearly insufficient. What I saw in many prisons was the need to employ guards as facilitators. While their primary role is in prison security, this often prevents educational activities. “They don’t understand”, educators and inmates often complain. Guards should be sensitive to the need of inmates’ education. After all, as Nelson Mandela put it, guards are the closest and most important contact to prisoners (Mandela 1995, p. 417).
For outsiders, one surprising characteristic of Latin American prisons is the fact that children often live in prison with their mothers. It therefore follows that prisons should provide educational services not only to women, but also to children. Most countries put an age cut-off on children, and some countries organise childcare services. Sadly, in the worst cases, children live in chaos inside mixed-gender and violent prisons. For example, there are some prisons in Bolivia harbouring as many as 1,500 children.26 It has been reported that in Argentina in 2016, 70 children were taking part in education programmes (Defensoría 2016). Evidently, it is important not only to verify whether prisons are providing education, but also whether they are ensuring the security and well-being of children. Sometimes, children simply remain in prison because of the lack of public orphanages, which means they have nowhere else to go.
Education programmes also contribute to peace in prisons. This is an important issue since, as we saw, violence is one of the major features of the penitentiary crisis. Certainly, as expressed by prison educators from Panama and Brazil, education courses do not guarantee a peaceful climate in prisons. However, they do reduce some negative tendencies and change the prison environment. For example, it has been reported that in 2012 in Mexico City’s prison system, the majority of inmates were enrolled in educational activities (almost 80%) (México Evalúa 2012). While it is difficult to conclude there is a correlation here, this fact could explain why prisons are far less violent in the capital than they are in the rest of the country, where there is a reported lack of or limited education options (CNDH 2015). Moreover, some educators from Brazil pointed out to me that in their prisons, educational spaces were respected even during violent incidents. This is relevant, because respect is indeed a special value that inmates must learn or reinforce. Some educators from El Salvador underlined the respect for teachers shown by even the most violent inmates.
The profound and complex issues surrounding prison education make generalisations impossible. Prison education in Latin America is a social challenge for practitioners, for prison authorities – and for researchers, too. Indeed, we have to be innovators in a field were conventional research strategies fail to grasp its complex and compelling reality. Latapi (2009) analysed adult education in Latin America in response to the dramatic conditions of poverty and exploitation. As he suggests, we must explore the structural problems that affect education. These structural problems, inherent in the entire criminal justice system, determine prison education in many ways. Garratt and Forrester point out that education policies should pursue social justice (Garratt and Forrester 2012, p. 44). Our study confirms that the role of education in prisons coincides with social justice, not only in terms of equity, but also in building criminal justice institutions themselves.
Italian criminalist pioneer Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) as well as his contemporary philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment were opposed to the punishment approach. Denis Diderot (1713–1784) wondered why we punish people if we obtain nothing from that punishment. This question is very pertinent in the Latin American context, where sentences are exaggerated compared with those in European countries and Canada; nevertheless, those countries have significantly lower criminal rates. Punishment itself has not solved violence, nor “rehabilitated” inmates, as some officials suggest. It is important to recognise that prison educators in Latin America are working against the current which is powered by the dominant discourse of punishment and the penitentiary crisis.
I do not suggest that prison education is the one and only remedy to solve the penitentiary crisis in Latin America. As mentioned above, recidivism, which has relative connotations in Latin America, is not automatically eliminated by education. This assumption ignores the nature of education, which should be regarded as a relationship aimed at the emergence and the development of the subject. In this sense, education is not a mechanic factory, as Meirieu (1996) pointed out. However, reducing recidivism to some extent does seem possible under certain conditions, by considering prisoner profiles and consequently adopting complementary and specialised strategies.
Beyond the recidivism debate, prison education is clearly an alternative approach to the dominant discourse of punishment. Prison education is also an alternative to conventional solutions adopted by politicians, such as the privatisation of prisons. As an Argentinian inmate student enrolled in a law programme put it, “It is not punishment that transforms human behaviour, but education” (Dillon 2015). Considering that human rights violations in Latin American prisons represent a considerable social problem, prison education is a political affirmation, since education is a right, a human right. On the other hand, the penitentiary crisis cannot be solved merely with some education programmes. As we realised in the course of our research for the EUROsociAL I study (Rangel 2009), a radical prison reform is needed in order to reduce pre-trial incarceration significantly and to improve prisoners’ lives.
On 7–8 November 2014, Paraiba University in Brazil organised a conversation with 100 inmates in Serrotao prison, Campina Grande. The prison authorities moderated this dialogue in which inmates expressed themselves freely in front of our research team and the education staff. The inmates’ presentations illustrated their vision of education. Although they valued the courses they took, some protested against certain aspects of prison organisation and some asked not to be infantilised by education programmes. Indeed, teaching and learning activities should avoid a patronising tone. It is worth noting that in fact most of the inmate presentations were about personal expression and self-development.
When seen not as a cost but as a benefit to society, as a human right and as a social good, a clear case can be made for moving adult education higher up the political agenda and for ending its chronic under-funding (UIL 2010, p. 12).
This statement is particularly significant in Latin America. Indeed, as mentioned above, a convergence of policies and cooperation between institutions is indispensable to cultivating a number of routes to success. Successful learners could be understood as being inmates who are transformed by education. We have success when inmates are proud of their accomplishments, and also when they learn about respect.
programs must cultivate several routes to success and be skeptical of any “magic-bullet” solutions (Duguid 1998, p. 49).
These outcomes are of paramount importance in the Latin American context, where violence is present in everyday life and threatens social cohesion. Prison education institutionalises the respect for human rights and reinforces the law, resulting in the penal institution gaining legitimacy, rather than promoting punitive imagery. In this way, prison institutions are important contributors to building democracy in Latin America.
the promotion of social cohesion; the re-integration of ex-inmates into the community as reformed members (Quan-Baffour and Zawada 2012, p. 73).
According to its own website, EUROsociAL ”is a cooperation programme between Latin America and the European Union which seeks to contribute to improving social cohesion in Latin American countries, as well as to institutional strengthening through support to their processes for the design, reform and implementation of public policies … Through an elusive and multidimensional understanding of social cohesion centred around the concept of welfare based on equal opportunity, a sense of belonging and solidarity, EUROsociAL, in its two first phases (EUROsociAL I [2005–2010] and EUROsociAL II [2011–2015]), has contributed to the formulation and enhancement of public policies, institutional capacity building, and the establishment of important international commitments” (http://eurosocial.eu/en/pagina/el-programa [accessed 9 October 2018]).
In this article I integrate information gleaned from academic meetings which I attended in 2015 (Brazil), 2016 (Uruguay) and 2016–2017 (Panama), introducing new aspects of analysis inspired by these events and updated information from 2013–2014 reports. I also highlight elements which are academically relevant but not included in these official reports.
For example, in Mexico in 2015, 50% of inmates were arrested for trafficking or possession of drugs worth less than 66 USD, and 25% for drugs worth less than 10 USD (CNDH 2016).
Quotation translated into English for the purposes of this article.
Referring to efforts addressing penitentiary problems in the United States (US), Clint Smith mentions that under the Obama administration, the US Government abandoned the privatising policy. He rightly points out “the absurdity of privatizing prisons, institutions whose purpose is to rehabilitate, so that their economic motivations no longer match up with their social mission” (Smith 2016).
In a private prison, each inmate costs 1,500 pesos daily (for women it can reach 2,500), in a public one between 150 and 390 pesos (Documenta et al. 2016).
This is exemplified in Islas Marias (Mexico), where 800 inmates used to live in a quiet family colony. The new complex built in 2012 now houses 8,000 prisoners (CNDH 2014).
In the context of our EUROsociAL study, an entire workshop was organised in Santiago de Chile in October 2013 for specialists to discuss private facilities in prisons. However, most of their exchanges were about the difficulties in recovering money from companies.
The official slogan, according to the Peruvian National Pentitentiary Institute’s Subdirectorate of Penitentiary Education (INPE 2016), is reeducar para resocialar [reeducate to resocialise].
Classification in this context refers to the procedure of placing prisoners in the right custody level and to match offenders’ needs with correctional resources.
In Mexico, it is reported that 88% of state prisons are not classified (CNDH 2016).
For example, Diana Noy, an honest and well-respected professional, was accused for the death of one inmate in Montevideo prison while she served as its director. Criminal charges were finally dropped, but she lives with the stigma of that accusation (personal interview with Diana Noy, Montevideo, July 2016).
Eleven countries were represented in those meetings held in 2013/2014: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Peru.
Workshop with teachers in Colombia (Villa de Leyva, 2007). The same claim was expressed in the Brazilian congress “Encuentro Latinoamericano de educación para jóvenes y adultos em situación de restricción y privación de la libertad” [Latin American meeting of education for young people and adults in situations of restriction and deprivation of freedom], held in November 2014 in Río de Janeiro, Brazil., and in Uruguay workshops (Montevideo, 2016).
In Colombia, youth can do their military service in the penitentiary system (INPEC 2017).
Even to enter prisons, we were required to fill out forms, have permits, and wait for their identification and revision. In Colombia, we were even asked to state our blood groups before we were permitted to enter the prison.
“Remição pela Leitura” [remission by reading] was implemented by Brazilian Federal Law no. 17329 in 2012. To prove having read a particular book, inmates have to write a review of it.
According to National Institute of Rehabilitation (Instituto Nacional de Rehabilitación; INR) in Uruguay, the total number of inmates there in 2016 was 10,195, of which 34,21% were working and 25,67% were studying (INR 2016).
In another interview we conducted in Brazil in 2014, the responsible official confirmed that thousands of inmates are excluded for the same reason (personal communication).
According to official sources, in Peruvian prisons, 9% of inmates are paedophiles and 5.5% are rapists (INPE 2016, p. 26).
During a visit to Barcelona in 2008, I learned that in Spain, where domestic violence offenders represent 25% of the prison population, authorities provide a special programme called Programa de tratamiento en prison para agresores en el âmbito familiar [In-prison treatment programme for aggressors in the family environment].
At a meeting organised within the framework of EUROsociAL II in Santiago de Chile in 2013, Spain presented its penitentiary system as a model which was later adopted in Paraguay.
The Global Campaign for Education (GCE) is a civil society movement which was established in 1999. For more information, see http://www.campaignforeducation.org/en/ [accessed 14 September 2018].
In Bolivia, according to national law, inmates’ children must leave prison by the time they turn six, but many stay with their parents much longer.
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