A way to solve the prison crisis and reduce recidivism



Photo by Olga Espinoza

In 2007, the Ministry of the Interior and Public Security in Chile launched a pilot program for the social reintegration of convicts. Compared to other reintegration programs, its great advantage was that it followed an evidence-based model: The Risk-Need-Responsivity Model, one of the models most often used in prisons, and one amply supported by empirical data.

The model provides a coherent methodological framework for making decisions, guiding interventions and providing principles for treatment and evaluation. It incorporates instruments for diagnosis and evaluation and requires capable human resources and adequate economic resources. It also requires better physical spaces and living conditions than are standard in Chile, among other countries.

An evaluation of the program showed a 32 percent drop in the rate of recidivism for its beneficiaries, compared to a control group.

The Chile program shows that the social reintegration of convicts is possible. The need is urgent. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the prison crisis is evident in the grave levels of overcrowding and overpopulation. It is also evident in the levels of violence within the prisons and in the difficulties faced when implementing programs for social reintegration.

Overpopulation is defined as when the prison capacity established by administrative authorities is surpassed by the number of people held in the prison.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, many countries present some degree of overcrowding and overpopulation. Considering that prisons with more than 20 percent overpopulation are considered to have a “grave” problem, the situation in the region is alarming: Countries like Perú, Bolivia, Guatemala and Barbados report overpopulation rates of more than 200 percent.

That means they have more than twice the number of inmates they are officially prepared to house. The situation is even worse in El Salvador, with a 325 percent overpopulation rate, and Haiti, with a rate of 417 percent.

The majority of prison systems consider the promotion of social reintegration as one of their goals. The importance of reintegration is even greater today because it has been shown that incarceration by itself does not reduce recidivism.

Recidivism is the best indicator of the effectiveness of the criminal justice system because it shows the number or percentage of people who are known to the criminal justice system and commit crimes again. Reintegration involves any action that tends to improve the conditions that prison inmates face once they are free, thereby reducing the risk of recidivism. Rehabilitation, for its part, is the process of recovering from a medical condition, such as drug or alcohol abuse, that contributes to the commission of crimes. Overcoming such conditions contribute to a reduction in recidivism (Villagra, 2008).

Reintegration and rehabilitation programs, when properly designed and implemented, may reduce the idle time of convicts and the stress associated with life in prison, as well as improving the stability and order within the prisons.

More importantly, however, they contribute to the convicts’ social, employment and economic reintegration and thereby reduce recidivism (Mears et al., 2002).

Programs for reintegration and rehabilitation in prison, when well implemented, can reduce recidivism by 20 to 40 percent, as long as they meet the criteria for effectiveness. (Serin, 2005)

What elements must be present to make reintegration and rehabilitation programs effective? (Villagra, 2012)

*Effective actions toward reintegration and rehabilitation must seek to reduce the probability of recidivism. To achieve that, it is necessary to determine which factors increase and which decrease recidivism, through a study of the profile of the prison population.

*The motivation of participants is an indispensable part of the design and implementation of effective programs because it helps to confirm their intention to reintegrate themselves.

*The design of the programs must take into consideration the participants’ capacity to learn. The interests of human beings are diverse, as well their ability to learn. Some people respond better in group work, others in individual settings. Some people will not benefit from classes that require a lot of reading. Addictions may keep others from participating constructively in certain activities.

*Successful programs address more than one risk factor. These factors include limited access to formal education, inadequate work experience, drug abuse and attitudes toward crime, among others, putting emphasis on the development of abilities and on those factors that can be modified. Programs that address four to six risk factors for recidivism can have a 30 percent or more impact on the reduction of recidivism (Gendreau et al., 2002). Programs that do not address risk factors for recidivism may have no impact at all.

*Human resources can have a great influence on the success or failure of a program. Successful programs count on staff members who believe in the possibility of change among the convicts, who know the goals of the program and who have received training on how to achieve them.

*Effective programs have mechanisms for evaluating their work. The monitoring and evaluation of the program, before and after it is put into effect, are crucial to guaranteeing the consistency and maintenance of its quality.

*The work of the programs inside the prisons generates better results when is continued in the communities once the inmates are freed.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are few experiences that bring together all the principles that we have just described. The principal problems include shortcomings in diagnostics and evaluations of the programs. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify some of the important experiences in this area.

One example is the Chilean case, already described. The other is in Brazil. Since 1984, that country has had Community Councils that allow the community to participate in the management of prisons. The councils are established at the initiative of the criminal court judge in each community and are made up of representatives of the community. The objective is to promote the reintegration of those who leave the penal system and improve the conditions of those who remain in prison.

They also identify the problems that affect male and female inmates and seek solutions in coordination with authorities. And they act as a check on the activities inside the prison, with the goal of improving the conditions of imprisonment. They also manage campaigns for community awareness, to motivate diverse community groups to become involved in the process of social reintegration. The councils therefore are a link between the prison and the community.

These examples in Chile and Brazil prove that it is possible to rehabilitate and reintegrate. I don’t want to leave you with the impression that these programs by themselves will resolve the prison crisis, but they are important steps. It is also important to stop the abuses of pretrial incarceration, an important reason behind the prison overcrowding in our region, and to make more use of alternative sentences, among other measures.

To conclude, it is worth remembering that a dignified treatment of prison inmates, even if they committed a crime, is the responsibility of all society because it reflects who we are and shows respect for basic human rights. At the same time, a person who is positively reintegrated into the community will not commit a crime again, and this will reduce the state’s costs.

Olga Espinoza is a lawyer, with a Master’s degree in law from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. A citizen of Peru, she has been a consultant for the Ford foundation and the Inter-American Development Bank in several Latin American nations on issues of human rights and prison reforms. She has participated in investigative and intervention projects on criminal justice reforms, state crimes in the process of democratic consolidation, military justice, and international law, female crime and the penitentiary system. She has published articles and investigations in Chile, Ecuador, Perú, Brazil, Argentina, France and Germany. She spent eight years as coordinator of prison studies at the Center for Studies on Citizen Security in the University of Chile’s Institute for Public Issues. She is now deputy director of the Center and a professor at the Institute for Public Issues.

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