Crime & Justice, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Losing Freedom, But Not Dignity

Elizabeth Eames Roebling

NAJAYO, Jul 9 2009 (IPS) - If you are a woman in prison anywhere in the world, you would be fortunate to be in one of the new model prisons in the Dominican Republic.

Sitting at the table in the air-conditioned library at the women's prison in Najayo, Maya, from Serbia, draws in her notebook. Given a sentence of eight years for attempting to smuggle cocaine out of the Dominican Republic, she served time in the old-style prison in La Romana before being transferred here:

"I saw things there I thought I would never see in my life. There were drugs and alcohol easily available. It was completely overcrowded. There was only one metal door separating the men's prison from ours and there was a flap that opened through the door," she said,

"You don't want to know what went on there. They transferred me because I was a foreigner, because I have no embassy here in this country, and no relatives, so they thought I would have an easier time of it," Maya explained.

There are 236 women here, part of a plan to convert the entire penal system in the Dominican Republic to correctional centres of restorative justice.

That concept is broadly defined as institutionalising peaceful approaches to harm, problem-solving and violations of legal and human rights. These range from international tribunals like the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission to innovations within the criminal and juvenile justice systems, schools, social services and communities.

Officials travelled to various model prisons around the world – in England, the United States, Holland, France, China and Colombia – to choose elements they wanted to incorporate.

Ian Worthington, the ambassador from Britain, which provided technical assistance to the project, is enthusiastic about its success.

"Of the 36 prisons in the island, 11 have been converted already. The women's prison has a re-offence rate of less than five percent, which is unheard of," he said. "Although the prison has only been open for less than three years, the initial signs are hugely encouraging."

"When you visit there you see that there are the number of people in the cell that the cell was built for – you don't get the overcrowding," he added. "Their liberty is withheld, but their dignity is respected. This has helped people accept the training for skills that the women can use after they leave prison."

The Dominican Republic has a very small percentage of women behind bars. Only 3.1 percent of the prison population is women here compared with 10.8 percent in Costa Rica, 7.8 percent in Jamaica, 6.4 percent in Belize and 6.9 percent in Panama.

Roberto Santana, general director of the Escuela Nacional Penitenciaria, which trains the guards for the model prison system, explains that just half of the women are Dominican.

"The other half are foreigners, Europeans mainly," he said. "Strangely, there are very few Haitian women, perhaps three or four. I think this low percentage is due to a cultural question.

"The women in my country have always walked along the correct path, almost always," he said. "It is very rare that a woman commits a crime, and if she does, many times it is because she was first a victim of violence done to her, inside the family.

"The other issue is the phenomenon of drugs. We have strict drug laws in this country. But if you take out these two factors, the number of women who commit violent crimes is extremely low," he noted.

Santana is a retired chancellor of the Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo, the first university founded in the Americas, in 1538. While a student leader there, under President Joaquin Balaguer, he was himself imprisoned for a total of 72 times, once for a period of two years.

"In a traditional prison there are people who are very dangerous. They teach the other prisoners," he said. "The problem of prisons is not only to change so that each person has a bed and food. The challenge is to change these people into people who are useful, and can lead productive lives and contribute to the security of society."

Except for the obvious distinction that they are behind bars, the women could be in a strict boarding school.

Confined to cells of no more than three inmates, in cell blocks of 30, they rise at six a.m. and proceed with a strictly regimented daily schedule determined by the staff. Showers, head count, breakfast, classes, doctor's visits, therapy, lunch, rest hour, classes, exercise, classes, supper, recreation, bed.

Inmates may purchase personal items at the store with money sent by relatives, and are allowed visitors on weekends. Religious participation is mandatory although they have their choice of which religion.

If a woman gives birth, she may keep the child for the first year and a half, then she must put it in the care of her family. While conjugal visits are allowed in the men's prisons, they are not allowed in the women's prison.

"This is a historical fact of our country that the men have been given rights which have been denied to women," Santana acknowledged. "But we have plans to include these visits. Of course, it is more complicated for women than men, since men cannot become pregnant."

Throughout the prison, inmates attend classes in literacy, drama, religion, dressmaking and design, cooking and baking, hairdressing, computing and agriculture, including raising rabbits and chickens.

Angela, an attorney who was sentenced to 15 years, of which she will most likely serve half, as do most of the women, said, "Really, I am learning a lot here. There are always classes. There are always things to do. I even teach some classes."

Asked if she would not prefer then to stay, she replied, "Ah, no, freedom has no price."

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