Prison Reform
Prison reform is a global imperative. According to the World Prison Brief,
26,734 people are incarcerated in the Dominican Republic as of 2018, and 30 percent of the Dominican Republic’s population of 10.6 million are below the poverty line. The Centre of Excellence on Prison Reform and Drug Demand Reduction in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic was created by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to strengthen criminal justice in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Prison Reform in Central America

This prison reformation focuses on training programs for previously incarcerated people and promotes effective policies regarding healthcare and prison conditions. Many incarcerated people suffer from poverty, which leads to homelessness, crime, drugs and violence.

Prison reform by the Centre includes social reintegration programs post-release, and job and educational resources as well. The Centre will also place more focus on women, juveniles, youth with incarcerated mothers, drug-dependent prisoners and mental health. Since many prisoners cannot afford the Centre’s reformation, the UNODC aims to make these resources within the current prison system affordable. In the Najayo prison, classrooms are built to reach goals of zero percent illiteracy and the provision of college-level courses. Prisoners here are treated more humanely with a bed, desk in classroom and medical attention.

The prison system had to be reformed in the Dominican Republic due to how: previous imprisonment disrupted families, overcrowding promoted the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and prison time encouraged poverty rather than reduced it. The Centre has been so successful in prison reform in the Dominican Republic that inmates’ rate of returning has reduced from 50 percent prior to the Centre to less than 5 percent where facilities have adopted reformation programs.

UNODC’s Global Efforts

The UNODC has also reformed the prison system in Panama by focusing on the health and safety of prisoners in order to properly reintegrate inmates back into society. Panama has a high rate of incarceration, with 400 per 100,000 people as prisoners and a remand rate of 70 percent. Prison reform in Panama looks like IntegrArte, which is a fashion program that rehabilitates female prisoners in Panama by turning their crafts (hand-sewn bags, clothing, etc) into sellable profit.

Participants in the program are very appreciative of such efforts, and say that sewing and IntegreArte as a reformation program in prison helps greatly with the transition back into society. These programs open up micro-financing and housing opportunities and help people escape the confines of poverty.

Costa Rica also undergoes prison reform with WOLA, Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas. In 2013, Costa Rica had the third highest percentage of prisoners in Central American, and now the nation’s prison reform focuses on education, drug decriminalization and rehabilitation.

In 2016, the Ministry of Justice and Peace reduced prison terms for women who smuggled drugs into prisons to a minimum of three to eight years, if they met certain conditions. The result? One hundred and twenty female prisoners were released immediately in Costa Rica, and have since sought health services.

In fact, Costa Rica just passed a law in 2017 for eliminating criminal records for released people who have served sentences under certain conditions. It is still early to conduct studies of the results of this law, but one can assume that this action can reduce poverty of former inmates by providing jobs.

Mexico, El Salvador and Efforts at Rehabilitation

Mexico and El Salvador are also trying to adopt drug decriminalization and reduce gang crime and violence of poverty-ridden areas by using education and business development to build and strengthen communities. Prison reformation programs by the government  — such as drug rehabilitation and mandatory work trainings — have reduced the number of El Salvador’s homicides from 6,071 to 4,881 between 2015 and 2016.

In addition, rehabilitation and work trainings have reduced Mexico’s incarceration rate dramatically, with 37 percent fewer inmates in 2016 than 2015. A report by WOLF concluded that strict drug legislation and its aggressive implementation are key factors in rising incarceration rates and extreme prison overcrowding.

Prison reform is essential to reduce crime, violence, inhumane prison living conditions and poverty. UNODC prison reform programs such as the Centre are very important in Central America as it helps combat crime, drug trade and poverty for high-crime, low-income neighborhoods.

– Areina Ismail
Photo: Flickr

Society’s Slow Progression Towards Prison Reform
The $212 billion criminal justice system in the U.S. has long been controversial, and prison reform has recently gained the attention of more mainstream media sources.

After expanding 700 percent since the 1970s, the prison population is now 2.4 million people, more than the 1.9 million seniors graduating with a bachelor’s degree in the 2016-17 school year.

According to the National Institute of Justice, about 76.6 percent of prisoners return to prison after five years of release. Because of a number of factors, from limited employment options to restricted social benefits, the formerly incarcerated are greatly disadvantaged after reentering society. As a result, many have entered poverty, while most have returned to prison.

Continued exposure of justice system flaws and advocacy for prison reform has given rise to many inspirational organizations and breakthrough successes. Among these organizations are the Bard Prison Initiative, Dave’s Killer Bread and Defy Ventures.

The Bard Prison Initiative sends professors from Bard College to teach courses to incarcerated individuals. Through this approach of educating people out of crime and poverty, Bard has reduced the recidivism rate of its participants to two percent. The organization’s major breakthrough into the national spotlight was when it sent students to debate and later win against Harvard students.

Dave’s Killer Bread is a baking company founded by Dave Dahl, a formerly incarcerated individual. After leaving prison, he founded the company, soon experiencing wild success thanks to his great product and generosity. Part of the business model is employing formerly incarcerated individuals. In 2012, the company generated $53 million in revenue and employed 300 people.

Defy Ventures seeks to revitalize the lives of formerly incarcerated individuals and tap into their potential business skills. The organization works with individuals lost in the criminal justice system and helps make their entrepreneurial ideas into reality, giving them the practical knowledge, emotional support and funding to do so.

Defy Ventures’ most notable start-up is ConBody, founded by Coss Marte. After losing 70 pounds and four years of his life in prison, Marte started the “prison-style boot camp” that employs many of the exercises that prisoners do without access to a proper gym. Today, ConBody brings in 300 to 400 clients a week, while Marte has employed a few other formerly incarcerated individuals to be trainers.

As well as making societal changes to keep people out of prison in the first place, more changes must be considered to keep those who were previously incarcerated out of poverty.

Some business leaders are beginning to realize the untapped potential of the 2.4 million individuals in prison, and that many who once succeeded in crime could better use their skills in entrepreneurship. Some business leaders are beginning to change their policies to allow those with criminal histories to be hired.

Legislation could be introduced to provide education and therapy within the prisons. Without proper support and treatment, people will inevitably return to prison, as seen with current rates of recidivism.

Progress has been made in the past few years, but millions are still left behind bars for the rest of their lives, not because of a single sentence, but because the prison system does not support their abilities to re-enter society.

Henry Gao

Photo: Flickr