The United States faces significant challenges when it comes to prisoner rehabilitation. According to a recent study, more than 700,000 prisoners are released annually from federal and state prisons. Unfortunately, “within three years, 40 percent will be reincarcerated.”
To curb that trend, we’ve seen a range of efforts to improve correctional education and find better ways of supporting prisoners in their journeys toward social reconnection. Yet one of the most effective and inspiring examples is found in a country not typically known for its humane treatment of prisoners.
At Uruguay’s Punta de Rieles prison, inmates are offered unusual levels of education, empowerment, and individual freedom, with results that are drawing attention from advocates, political leaders, and policymakers around the world. Not only are prisoners allowed to work openly throughout the day, but they can start their own businesses, hire and/or work for each other, build their own savings/capital, and trade their products and services with the outside world.
“It’s been demonstrated everywhere that confinement doesn’t change people,” explains prison director Luis Parodi in a recent profile for the Associated Press. “Here the idea is to play at reality. If something fails, it fails. Just like in the real world.” Likewise, if something succeeds, it succeeds.
The prison has evolved into a small city of sorts, spanning 100 acres of open space. “There are bakeries and barbershops, a candy store and carpenter shop along streets where inmates mix with prison officials and police,” writes AP’s Leonardo Haberkorn. “One inmate carries a begonia he bought from a prisoner-owned nursery to give to his mother when she visits. Not far away, a convict-baker carries a birthday cake to the prison entrance to hand off to a customer.” The prison also includes a pizzeria, brick factory, and a variety of other shops and restaurants, as well as opportunities in theater and radio.
While some prisoners have abused such freedom, the vast majority have taken ownership. “Of the 510 prisoners, who include thieves, assailants, kidnappers and killers, 382 work and 246 study — some do both,” writes Haberkom. “Only a few dozen have shunned those opportunities, and if two years pass, they will be transferred to a traditional prison. To get chosen for Punta de Rieles, prisoners have to have at least a six-month period of good behavior elsewhere.”
In a short film from Vice News, we see a more personal glimpse of Punte de Rieles, including stories from inmates and the transformation they’ve experienced in their journey through entrepreneurship:
The political and economic implications are significant. The prison costs far less to operate than a typical prison, with more peaceful prisoners and, thus, fewer guards. More importantly, as Parodi explains, these prisoners bring a new attitude and outlook to their communities upon release—eager and able to contribute to social and economic life:
The only thing that Punta de Rieles wants to do is improve our safety by helping inmates become better individuals once they leave. That’s the only way to improve our security, but, not through repression, using repression won’t work. The idea that the state has the obligation to offer these inmates everything we can, and by everything, we don’t mean materialistically, but ideologically. The important thing is what you do and how you do it. You’re going to die one day. This is transitional, it’s artificial, so you have to move forward. Prison is nothing more than a ton of anxiety. That’s all it is. How to make anxiety work in a constructive way is our task.
One example is Mauro Rodríguez, a former inmate who now owns a business in his community. Although he’s gained his freedom, he still returns to the prison on occasion to reconnect and contribute:
Mauro Rodríguez is an example of how the system is supposed to work. He’s in prison — but just for a visit this time. He came to repair a machine to make cement blocks that he’d created while spending several years as an inmate. He now has a blacksmith’s shop on the outskirts of Montevideo, where he works with his brother.
He’d been part of a band of drug dealers when he was arrested, and said four of his former friends are now dead.
“If it wasn’t for Punta de Rieles,” he said, “I would be, too.”
Indeed, while the success of Punta de Rieles offers many lessons as we seek to reform our own criminal justice system, we shouldn’t neglect what it teaches us about the inherent dignity and creative capacity of the human person.
These are men who have otherwise been deemed “thieves, assailants, kidnappers and killers,” and yet here they are, still bound up and pushed forward with so much transcendent purpose. No personal failures and abuses or outside oppression can take that away.
Further, these gifts were not made for a prison cell. By allowing them to pursue work in a needed skill—by orienting hearts and hands toward service to others and thus to God—these prisoners are able to join into a transformative, collaborative exchange that shapes their very souls and spirits. It’s an opportunity that many of us take for granted—dismissing work, business, and trade as strictly meant for our own materialistic self-provision.
As the inmates of Punta de Rieles demonstrate, our economic activity was meant for much more: inspiring our virtue, channeling our freedom, and unlocking our God-given capacity in surprising and transformative ways.