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.


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.

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  1. 1.

    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” ( [accessed 9 October 2018]).

  2. 2.

    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.

  3. 3.

    In Colombia, 51% of prisoners are remanded in custody (INPEC 2016). In Panama, 65% of 17,300 inmates are remanded in custody and only 35% were judged (UMECIT 2016). In Uruguay, 70% are remanded in custody (INR 2015).

  4. 4.

    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).

  5. 5.

    Quotation translated into English for the purposes of this article.

  6. 6.

    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).

  7. 7.

    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).

  8. 8.

    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).

  9. 9.

    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.

  10. 10.

    The official slogan, according to the Peruvian National Pentitentiary Institute’s Subdirectorate of Penitentiary Education (INPE 2016), is reeducar para resocialar [reeducate to resocialise].

  11. 11.

    Classification in this context refers to the procedure of placing prisoners in the right custody level and to match offenders’ needs with correctional resources.

  12. 12.

    In Mexico, it is reported that 88% of state prisons are not classified (CNDH 2016).

  13. 13.

    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).

  14. 14.

    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.

  15. 15.

    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).

  16. 16.

    In Colombia, youth can do their military service in the penitentiary system (INPEC 2017).

  17. 17.

    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.

  18. 18.

    The studies of Maxwell Cameron, Eric Hershberg and Kenneth Sharpe show the building process of democratic institutions in Latin America (Cameron et al. 2012). I adopted this perspective and delved deeply into criminal justice institutions (Rangel 2015b).

  19. 19.

    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.

  20. 20.

    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).

  21. 21.

    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).

  22. 22.

    According to official sources, in Peruvian prisons, 9% of inmates are paedophiles and 5.5% are rapists (INPE 2016, p. 26).

  23. 23.

    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].

  24. 24.

    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.

  25. 25.

    The Global Campaign for Education (GCE) is a civil society movement which was established in 1999. For more information, see [accessed 14 September 2018].

  26. 26.

    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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Rangel Torrijo, H. Cooperation and education in prison: A policy against the tide in the Latin American penitentiary crisis. Int Rev Educ 65, 785–809 (2019).

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  • prison education
  • Latin America
  • EUROsociAL
  • adult and lifelong education