Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Transformation of a Prison

Prisons in Latin America are often thought to be overcrowded, corrupted. It is no surprise in a country with high poverty, crime rates, a poor education system and rampant unemployment, all of which contribute to high incarceration rates.

This is a typical prison in Dominican Republic. Overcrowded, with prisoners running their own businesses. It was shocking to see the conditions that the prisoners live in. A lot of prisoner sleep on the floor, and lucky if there is shelter above them.

To sleep in a box, you will have to pay perhaps a few thousand pesos, but it comes with doors and privacy. The prisoners do get a chance to earn money inside prison, some run colmados (Provision stores) and some run barber shops or work in a workshop. (Yes, the barbers do have scissors in prison)

The ventilation is bad and it is indeed overcrowded and more than 20 men share the same bathroom, which sometimes do not have water. Many people see this as a real problem, but as they are not affected, it tends to be out of their minds until they get arrested.

On the bright side, things are going to change.

Below are photos of the current prison system.


Change is on the horizon. And the progressive change is very encouraging. The prisoners are provided materials and paid to work to rebuild the prison. The results are also pretty good. With some skilled labor training their apprentice, the whole process is great and the cost is also kept to a minimal.

The prisoners are also kept busy and under the supervision of the guards, they do great job putting the place together. The work is also done in phases and when completed, they prisoner will get to stay inside as well.

The works are also very complete. Bars removed and rewelded, cracks filled, pipes and electrical wires reinstalled,


There is much progress made and they have done a good job don't you think? Till date, 18 out of 35 prisons in the Dominican Republic is converted or in the process in converting into the reform system.

This new reform system is not only a pretty and better environment. The model system treats inmates more humanely by providing each with a bed, a desk in a classroom, and proper medical attention. All the guards are new hires without previous experience in the military, police or prison system, and they go through proper training within the new model prison, hopefully without any connection with corruption in the old system.

After talking to several people in charge of the prison, I feel that they are genuine in their interest in building a better prison system. They are interested in working with Civil Innovation Lab, running Entrepreneurship Bootcamps within the prison to empower the prisoners with business knowledge to help them setup businesses that would employ other prisoners.

So far, the results are very positive. In the 10 years of operations since the first reform system, less than 5 percent of inmates released from the model system re-offend; in the traditional system the rate is 50 percent. I could see this new system become the new system for all other prisons to follow.

-- Robin Low

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