Research notes with regard to education within a prison environment, from a Latin-American perspective

Hugo Rangel Torrijo
Associate member of the UNESCO Chair

These last years have seen a recognition for education in prisons within the Latin-American continent. Politicians and public servants address the subject more frequently and academics experts talk more about training within penitentiary centers. Unfortunately, the profound crisis pertaining to detention centers is problematic and deep-rooted. Over-population is an endemic issue, and the problems it causes aggravate the already precarious conditions within penitentiaries. There is a lack of space, materials and a lack of goods to live and survive on (sometimes even potable water). Furthermore, prisons are the epicenter of increased and persistent social violence (mutiny and bloody brawls are multiplied). A core fact identified by our research shows that penal institutions show the consequence of major flaws within the justice system. Overcrowding of prisoners is generalized (although on several levels) and this makes it even more difficult to provide basic services, especially such elements aimed at their rehabilitation, namely education. In these conditions, it is understandable (but unacceptable) that education is being neglected. The excuses flow not to respond to the right (even if inalienable) for education for the prisoners. Even more than resources, there is often a lack in political willingness to uphold this right.

We note that a substantial part of the prisoners are incarcerated for preventive measures. They are therefore waiting for a trial or a sentence. This situation maintains hundreds of thousands of prisoners on the continent in legal limbo, aggravating the crisis pertaining to overcrowding in penitentiaries from the majority of Latin-American countries[1]. We identified that, in several countries, the proportion of preventive prisoners constitutes more than half of the penal population (2009). Although this problem has long been identified on a University level and by authorities, the tendency to excessive and disproportioned preventive imprisonment continues. The most problematic consequence in this situation is undoubtedly the fact that prisoners do not have access to educational programs or worse, to employment. As such, even though the right to education is recognized by Latin-American governments, this right in fact remains a privilege for a minority of prisoners. Therefore, we must ask if, without reintegration programs, as is the case for a majority of prisoners, they have the possibility of integrating society when they leave prison. How to build politics and educational programs on the long-term beyond the bureaucratic and unstable dynamics without serving the personal interests of the penitentiary public servants? Such is an essential question one should ask with regard to this continent.

The majority of Latin American countries certainly account for ambitious plans and numerous initiatives. However, the programs implemented are limited. A minority of prisoners actually participate in activities and only a minority of prisons provide solid and permanent educational projects. Many of these positive – even innovative – projects are directed by enthusiastic professionals. Unfortunately, many initiatives do not see any follow through mainly because of administrative changes and continuous replacement of public servants. The programs are therefore left at the mercy of political power, other than financial and materialistic limitations.

In fact, we have noticed a lack in continuity pertaining to programs and public servants. Responsible parties from the penal system are often replaced and at the same time, incidents occur within penitentiaries (a frequent occurrence). Worse yet, public servants, even those who belong to a like government or political party, change programs, strategies and even priorities. As such, we notice the absence of true political insertion and education. Evidently, this situation is highly negative in a follow-up process for strategies and even prevents evaluations from taking place, which then prevents programs from continuously evolving.

As such, problems associated with the Latin-American context are highly complex and varied from one country to another, even from one region to another, and stem from different sources. However, the systematic programs as well as the consequences experienced daily by prisoners are quite similar. This is why collaboration is of great value in order to undertake exchanges and reflections that can contribute to the elaboration of public politics for penal centers. We have seen that, in spite of the fact that projects are isolated in one country, they find strength when connected on an international scale. In this context, our research focuses on different aspects of public politics, with an international and comparable flare.

In such a context, the collaboration from Europe is noticeable. Intergovernmental networks in the Eurosocial circle are an example of this collaboration. First, this program targeted the collaboration for education in prisons. I have performed a first regional study (Mapa Regional) and related projects were developed in each country based on their own initiative[2]. Secondly, (since 2012), actions targeted social integration. We have performed diagnostics and national priorities were identified to target projects and themes. This second segment, therefore, adopted an integral vision and considers post-penitentiary programs. This type of collaboration is certainly slow, complex and sometimes not noticeable to the public eye. However, it is essential in ensuring continuity and to create awareness toward key principles for social integration. It targets public politics rather than traditional collaborative assistance. The notion of social cohesion, therefore, takes on its fair dimension in a continent divided by social fractures of inequality and exclusions. The Europe/Latin-American collaboration offers great potential for development within this complex field.

The Latin-American context shows us that the problems surrounding education in prisons are closely linked to social problems as well as justice, violence, safety issues… We, the researchers, cannot neglect these elements, but we must instead consider them as part of an interdisciplinary vision. Surely, education in prisons cannot get lost in innumerable problems related to the field, but it is precisely at the center of interventions that aim to address and to find possible solutions for them. It is no longer enough to take inventory, but we must go further and make diagnostics for the problems we encounter, revise the standards and suggest alternatives. As indicated by the Cadre d’action de Belém (CONFINTEA VI, 2009), critical evaluations of progress are necessary; in fact, this is critical to exceeding pleasant official relationships.

Logically, the leaders of Latin-American countries (and elsewhere) are more receptive to educational programs when they are presented with such a perspective to respond to the prison crisis. We can recognize, as we have seen at the ICPA 2012 conference in Mexico, that the large safety, administration and technology companies are presented as the ideal solution to problems in Latin-American prisons[3]. Furthermore, regional politicians seem attracted by these short term strategies which are seemingly easy to apply. Nevertheless, these solutions have more costly consequences than first meets the eye and are far from the Latin-American problematic. On the other hand, the public opinion (falling under the pressures of popular address) requires more sanctions and a firmer grip within prisons (seen as the scapegoat for violence). As such, the option to education remains marginal, even though it constitutes a viable and legitimate alternative. This shows that we need to form a “resistance” based on education and humanitarian values for integration. Nelson Mandala wrote that prison was an education in itself, and that it requires patience and perseverance[4]. Above all, it is evidence of personal engagement, he would say. And this resistance is experienced even by prisoners dreaming of freedom.

Freire passionately identified this political aspect for adult education within the Latin-American continent. Considering this dimension is absolutely relative in today’s current crisis context, and more particularly, within prisons. As it so happens, one of the objectives of CONFINTEA VI was to “renew willingness and political engagement and develop tools for achievement, in order to move from speech to action.” This way, political engagement is a lever to realizing concrete projects. Taking this challenge is part of necessary public politics within the region and is supported by UNESCO, namely, education for all and education for peace and tolerance within a continent marked by violence and where we can witness intolerance toward prisoners. In this context, the notion for education throughout a lifetime is unavoidable toward the social integration of prisoners and people who have been granted their freedom. Education in prisons humanizes jails just as much as society as a whole. This is particularly true and pertinent today in Latin America.




[1] For example, the Brezilian and Mexican federal authorities inform (2013) that preventive prisoners represent 42% of the penal population. In Panama, 78% and in Equator, 60%.
[2] Rangel, H. (2009) Mapa latinoamericano de educación en prisiones. Eurosocial.
[3] Yearly meeting of the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA), Mexico, 2012.
[4] Mandela, N. (1995) Long Walk to Freedom. Little Brown and Company.