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URUGUAY: Prison Without Bars Offers True Rehabilitation

MONTEVIDEO, Oct 15 2009 (IPS) - Fabián Rodríguez has two years to go on a long sentence for robbery. After spending time in three overcrowded maximum security prisons in Uruguay, he finally landed in a rehabilitation centre where work and respect are central pillars. Now he runs a bakery which supplies 200 inmates as well as the guards.

Inmate in the CNR carpentry workshop. Credit: Alejandro Arigón/IPS

Inmate in the CNR carpentry workshop. Credit: Alejandro Arigón/IPS

The National Rehabilitation Centre (CNR), which operates in an old psychiatric hospital, is a model prison practically without bars that has an extremely low recidivism rate among its former inmates.

Rodríguez spent time in the prison named Libertad – which paradoxically means “Freedom” – located 50 km from Montevideo, where the 1973-1985 military dictatorship kept hundreds of political prisoners. He was also held in the Santiago Vázquez Penitentiary Complex, the country’s largest prison, and in La Tablada, both of which are located on the outskirts of the Uruguayan capital.

The poor conditions in Uruguay’s prisons have come under scrutiny from international human rights organisations.

In La Tablada, nevertheless, Rodríguez was able to learn professional baking skills – “by watching and earning my stripes” – and he later formed part of a group of prisoners who founded a baking cooperative, the Cooperativa Panificadora de Apoyo Social.

"If I can teach others, that's even better"

The National Rehabilitation Centre (CNR) was able to set up a bakery thanks to donations from the government's National Drug Board (JND) and the state insurance and telecoms companies.

Besides baking bread and biscuits for the CNR, Fabián Rodríguez has taught a baking course for 13 fellow inmates, three of whom now work with him every night, from midnight to 7:00 AM. "After that we get some sleep, and after lunch I play a little football or I do other things…there are always things to do," he told IPS.

The bakery also makes pizzas, cakes, pastries and other baked goods, and will soon make sandwiches as well. The members of the cooperative are anxious for the paperwork to be completed so they can start selling their products outside the walls of the CNR. But in the meantime, they have already started filling orders for catering services at birthdays and weddings, Rodríguez says with evident pride. They also made a huge cake for National Police Day, and another one, weighing nearly 100 kg, for the inmates to celebrate Children's Day with their families.

With what he has earned working in prison, Rodríguez has already begun to purchase equipment to open his own bakery when he regains his freedom.

He said the JND had also mentioned to him the possibility of teaching baking and pastry-making skills at the Santiago Vázquez prison, once he gets out. "I said yes immediately. The only thing I know for sure is that when I get out of here, I'll never steal again. I like what I'm doing, and if I can teach other people, that's even better," he said.

It was then, he told IPS, that he applied for a transfer.

After he made it to the CNR, he and his fellow inmates established a new branch of the La Tablada cooperative, which opened in late July. But they hope to eventually have their own independent cooperative.

In this small South American country of 3.3 million people sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil, the prison population has grown nearly threefold since 1995, largely due to the stiffening of sentences for minor crimes, as well as a rise in drug abuse.

The latest report by the congressional commissioner for the penitentiary system, Álvaro Garcé, says the number of prisoners climbed from 2,791 in 1990 to 8,100 in March 2008 – one of the highest rates in Latin America in proportion to the population.

Garcé underscored that Uruguay’s prisons do not prepare inmates – who have high rates of drug and alcohol abuse and low levels of schooling – for reinsertion in society.

Prisoners are held in overcrowded conditions, with 8,100 inmates housed in facilities built to hold 6,164, and nearly 100 new intakes a month.

After a short-lived respite provided by the early release of 800 prisoners under a special “prison emergency” law passed by the governing left-wing Broad Front coalition shortly after it took office in 2005, the system is once again overwhelmed, to the point that it earned a sharp rebuke this year from Manfred Nowak, United Nations special rapporteur on torture.

To ease pressure on the penitentiary system, the administration of socialist President Tabaré Vázquez designed a series of measures, including legal reforms, to expand prisons and open new facilities, in a process still in its early stages.

The recidivism rate in Uruguay is around 60 percent, which makes the CNR a kind of island, with only 10 to 12 percent of former inmates becoming repeat offenders since 2002, the assistant director of the institution, police commissioner Enrique Mesa, told IPS.

He explained that in Uruguay the recidivism rate is measured by the proportion of inmates who are arrested again within five years of release.

True rehabilitation

“We found the bakery project very interesting from the moment it was proposed,” police inspector Gustavo Belarra, director of the CNR, told IPS in an interview.

“It’s really important for the prisoners, most of whom have children, to be able to take training courses and work alongside their fellow inmates, because it not only prepares them for better reinsertion in the labour market, but tremendously strengthens the bonds among them and between them and society and their families, while boosting their self-esteem,” he said.

The CNR opened on Jul. 31, 2002 in what used to be the Musto psychiatric hospital in the north of the province of Montevideo, close to the border with the neighbouring province of Canelones.

“The centre is like a halfway house in which inmates are gradually integrated into society, as they acquire different skills to facilitate social inclusion when they leave the prison system,” said Belarra, who has worked in different positions in the CNR since it began to function.

There are currently 192 inmates, seven of whom have daytime study release privileges.

The only rooms with bars are the ones assigned to the new intakes. The newcomers are later moved to the second floor, where they share rooms with other inmates and are subject to few security measures and have greater independence and the chance to continue their primary or secondary school studies where they had left off.

The centre has classrooms and teachers thanks to an agreement with the National Administration of Public Education.

Second chance

The first thing you notice when you enter the enormous grounds of the CNR is young men energetically hoeing the soil and pushing wheelbarrows full of dirt.

"They're burning off energy; they have to eat well and move around a lot so their bodies get used to being off 'pasta base' (cocaine sulfate)," explained an inmate showing IPS around.

The young men are taking part in a programme for first-time offenders, created a year ago for inmates up to the age of 29 without previous criminal records, who are in prison for minor or moderate drug-related crimes, which usually involve cocaine sulfate, a highly addictive and destructive drug.

Cocaine sulfate is obtained by macerating coca leaves, which are mixed with water and sulfuric acid, or a solvent like benzene, ether or kerosene. The drug, which is smoked, is known in Uruguay and neighbouring Argentina as "pasta base" or "paco".

The idea behind the first-time offenders programme is to rehabilitate young drug users while keeping them away from the hard-core prison population, said CNR director Belarra.

To identify potential new participants, psychologists and psychiatrists interview young prisoners with drug problems, who are invited to join the programme of their own free will.

The first six months are focused on detox and rehabilitation, a process that involves the prisoner facing up to the fact that he landed in jail because of his drug problem.

After that, the CNR staff and experts work with the first-time offenders using the same strategies as with the rest of the inmates, offering them the chance to pick up their studies again or learn a skill, with a view to reinsertion in the labour market – and society.

“Most of the prisoners who are transferred here are functionally illiterate or extremely rusty – that is, it has been so long since they have sat in front of a textbook or a math equation that they forgot how to do it,” said Belarra. The idea is for the inmates to study, without feeling obligated to do so, because they understand the benefits that schooling represents, he added.

The centre also has a cybercafé donated by the state telecoms company and run by the inmates themselves.

From football to work

During the tour of the installation by IPS, in the company of just a few inmates, the climate of respect and civility stood out.

“There is no punishment or beatings here. It’s clear and simple: you have to study, work or be involved in some activity, and in your free time you can do whatever you like,” says one of the inmates, pointing to a tidy gym where several young men are working out, lifting weights and punching boxing bags.

The basic rules in the CNR are: no drugs or alcohol, take care of the facility, and no fighting.

Some of the inmates are playing football, while a few metres away others are working the soil with a hoe and shovel, and filling up wheelbarrows. They are first-time offenders, in for minor drug-related crimes. (See sidebar.)

After walking around the place for a while, it’s easy to forget you are in a prison, surrounded by people who have committed crimes, including violent ones. The only reminder is the occasional uniformed police officer.

The entire building, inside and out, is painted a shiny white, the smells coming from the kitchen are enticing, and the bathrooms are in excellent shape. “That’s what public bathrooms in bars and restaurants and schools should look like,” a passing police officer remarks.

Besides the bakery, there is a carpentry workshop and a smithy, where benches and desks are repaired and furniture is made for public schools in the area – “a good way to improve ties with the community,” said Belarra.

The workshops have made, for example, the post office’s letter trays, as well as more than 100 basketball hoops specially produced for a drug rehabilitation programme launched by the president’s office, which were set up in public sports facilities around the country.

Several inmates are also studying to become plumbers, electricians, mechanics, gardeners and brick-layers, at the Universidad del Trabajo del Uruguay, the country’s main technical vocational institute.

In addition, the CNR has work agreements with Catholic Church institutions, private companies, and public enterprises like the Ancap state-owned oil company, the water utility, the Montevideo port service, public hospitals and Congress.

Fabián Rodríguez knows that the temptation to go back to his old ways will always be there, and he still has a couple years to go in the CNR, although he may be granted day leave or be released on parole before that, depending on what the judge decides.

But this time, he says, instead of holding a gun to get his hands on some dough, he will keep his hands on the real dough – making bread for a living, to stay out of prison for good.

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