Working from prison, a solution for thousands of inmates in Latin America

March 12, 2014


Inmates at Quencoro Penitentiary make textiles.

World Bank

  • A prison of Cuzco, in Peru, offers to its prisoners the possibility of working informally to help their families and assist their eventual reintegration into society

Ever since he was sentenced to prison nearly four years ago, Daniel has never stopped thinking about his family or the year 2022, when he is scheduled for release. Time goes by slowly in the prison in Quencoro, Cusco, where the young man serves his sentence along with 1,900 other inmates.

But ever since he began making traditional textiles and selling them outside the prison, he has been able to provide for his wife and child and can continue to do so until the day he is released.

Thirty-year-old Daniel is one of thousands of inmates participating in the new reinsertion through employment programs. These programs seek to recover the true meaning of the word “rehabilitation” in one of the world’s most inefficient penitentiary systems.

Overcrowding, corruption, a lack of control and a high rate of repeat offenders are just a few of the serious problems in Latin American jails.

For example, occupancy rates in prisons in El Salvador are 334% (or three times over capacity) whereas in Bolivia this figure reaches 263%. Peru occupies third place in this ranking with an occupancy rate of 225%.

Just 45% of inmates have been sentenced. Many crimes in cities such as Lima, Bogota or Tegucigalpa are planned from within prisons and most inmates quickly return to jail after their release, making their reinsertion into society a resounding failure, according to experts.

There is a divide between the judicial and prison systems. Those who make the laws and those who impart justice do not take into account prison capacities, according to authorities.

 “Prison benefits have been reduced and sentences have become stiffer; more inmates enter than leave and there has been little change in available space,” says Luis Pérez Guadalupe, president of Peru’s National Penitentiary Institute. “Besides,” he says, “a large share of the prison population is still waiting for a judge to decide definitively whether or not they are guilty.”

" Prison benefits have been reduced and sentences have become stiffer; more inmates enter than leave and there has been little change in available space. "

Jose Luis Perez Guadalupe

President, National Penitentiary Institute of Peru

What can be done?

The rise in the prison population in Latin America has coincided with a rampant increase in crime. Seven of the 10 countries with the world’s highest homicide rates are located in the region. Although there is no single reason to explain the two phenomena, nor is there a magic wand to resolve them, it is hard to imagine an effective social reinsertion without taking into account the conditions of social exclusion that lead to crime.

A project implemented by the National Penitentiary Institute of Peru is designed to address the causes of social exclusion that affect the majority of inmates, especially in Andean jails. The so-called Prison-School Workshop is a strategy that seeks to change values and perspectives for the labor reinsertion of incarcerated individuals.

This initiative, which is sponsored by the World Bank and other organizations, teaches young people to make handicrafts, textiles, leather goods and other products, which are subsequently sold at various points along tourist circuits or in supermarkets.

For many of the inmates, such as Daniel, income from these activities represents the main means of support for their families and their only opportunity to continue to “take care of them from prison.”

These types of projects are important not only in that they help improve the economic conditions of inmates’ families, which are among the most vulnerable citizens in the region. They also “represent a rehabilitation model through economic inclusion, which is one of the pillars of the ambitious prison reform process in Peru,” says World Bank governance expert Sergi Pérez Serrano.

According to the expert, these initiatives support what should be the mission of penitentiary systems: to become true spaces for social inclusion.