When in 2006, Guatemala boasted its lowest point in prison capacity, it was still at a 127% capacity.
In all, Guatemala’s 21 prisons are capable of housing about 6,000 inmates. As of today and according to Prison Insider and World Prison Brief, among other sources, the amount of inmates reaches over 21,000. That’s over 350% capacity.
Add to this spicy mix, the fact that facilities are highly inadequate even for the capacity they were designed for, the level of corruption in the penitenciary system, the lack of basic services (water, infirmary, food) and gangs, and you get the very description of hell on earth.
Why, then, is recidivism so high?
According to the National Policy for Penitentiary Reform 2014-2024, in Guatemala 6 out of 10 ex-prisoners return to prison.
This past June I was able to visit an amazing program in Texas (www.pep.org) that has defined the reasons for recidivism and targeted them. They boast only a little over 7% recidivism rate (among many other seemingly incredible statistics). All of their claims were visibly true upon our visit. Many lives are completely changed by this program and, consequently, families and communities are recovering their health and vitality.
Upon visiting PEP and, after reading a few articles about a certain levels of success smaller programs in Chile and Dominican Republic have had, I realized there is hope for Guatemala and its prison system.
While in Houston we were invited by PEP staff to view a screening of the Academy Award Nominated movie “Knife Skills”.
“Knife Skills follows the hectic launch of Edwins restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. In this improbable setting, with its mouthwatering dishes and its arcane French vocabulary, we discover the challenges of men and women finding their way after their release. We come to know three trainees intimately, as well as the restaurant’s founder, who is also dogged by his past.
They all have something to prove, and all struggle to launch new lives — an endeavor as
pressured and perilous as the ambitious restaurant launch of which they are a part.“
We were glad and inspired in meeting Brandon Chrostowski, Founder, President and CEO of Edwins Restaurant and Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute, who also volunteered the next day at PEP’s in-prison program.
PEP and Edwins Restaurant and Institute, have identified that one of the biggest causes for recidivism is the lack of resources available for ex-prisoners upon their release.
In the U.S.A. the day they are released they get a $50 bill and a bus ticket. In Guatemala they get nothing upon release. In both cases their record is stained, which prevents them from getting a job.
Other organizations, such as Pathway in New Zealand (Reintegration Manager, Carey Ewing and I had a chance to meet over a conference call recently) and HomeBoy / Girl Industries in L.A. have identified the same indicators for recidivism.
In Guatemala, the economy’s only constant is its lack of stability. The unemployment rate is considered in average to be around 4% although its underemployment rate is estimated at an average of 14%. Sounds like Guatemala’s unemployment rate must have a direct impact on recidivism rates.
The Ministerio de Gobernación launched a new penitentiary model and is, by their own reports, having great success. I have yet to visit the women’s penitentiary where this program is being developed. I have to say, though, we don’t have much faith in government-initiated programs. They have risen often and then disappeared as soon as a new administration comes into office.
What is the solution, then?
I believe that privately owned companies can and would be willing to open their doors to employ ex-prisoners after they have proven they have been rehabilitated. Every person I have talked to about this so far, has said what they seek is an assurance that they, their company or their other employees are not in danger. Understandable.
There is a need for privately-run rehabilitation and reintegration programs that begin within the prisons. Programs such as the ones mentioned above truely prepare the person in a holistic way for their reentry to society. And they have the statistics and the lives to prove their effectiveness.
Not one of us on the outside can claim to have succeeded in any way without help. Not one of us can say we have never made a big mistake. Consider the fact that we may be speaking from integrated homes, safe homes, families, friends…most odds in our favor. How much more would we need that help and support if we faced the obstacles ex-prisoners face upon release?!
Maybe the solution to this enormous problem is just as easy as extending mercy, doing justice and walking humbly. We can all do some of that in our own way!
For more information on the subject visit: g-activa.org
Privately owned company Lucy Trotzke is teaming up with businesses such as Serigrafía de La Gringa to boost the opportunities for the incarcerated population in Guatemala to find a vocation and learn a skill. Follow them on their social media pages and web pages to stay in the loop!