The long laugh of all
these years *

Notes on the Uruguayan prison and the everlasting bet to rehabilitate in new establishments.

Angelina de los Santos

In June 1945 some Uruguayans sighed, full of illusions, with the start-up of the Corrective School for Social Misfits. The prison, expected to put back on track those who "went astray", was installed in one of the pavilions of what was intended to be a large complex, that would also have an Educational Working Colony. Men would be rehabilitated by cultivating the land, in Libertad, a town   50 kilometers far from Montevideo. Although only some of the facilities were inaugurated, the idea of  a "countryside healing effect" triggered such an enthusiasm that the Minister of Interior at that time, Juan Carbajal Victorica, ordered the following iron made inscription:  "Here the man is reformed by the land and the land by man"[1]; an unmistakable symbol of the prison’s purpose. This was the building’s frontispiece until 1972. Afterwards, during the dictatorship, the prison became the Military Reclusion Establishment N°1 with a welcome sign "We are here to obey". Thirteen years later, during the transition towards the democratic regime, the sign was removed and the prison became the so-called “Penal de Libertad” (a paradox, since Libertad means Freedom).

As the Uruguayan historian Daniel Fessler remarks, the concept of a prison has changed since the 19 th century [2], when the debate on the institutionalized confinement of those who commit crimes began: it is no longer required "to frighten people by making them suffer, but to reform the offender; from an instrument of torture and public revenge, to an institution of moral reform”.[3] Perhaps one might think that the successive goals of imprisonment were so evident that the iron slogans were only reminders to someone unaware.

However, even today it seems that there is no alignment between the purpose sought with confinement and the general results obtained with the "rehabilitation" programs (recidivism, overcrowding, poor prison conditions). Prison´s inefficiency is a concern for the authorities who, again and again, claim that they have no choice, then, but to keep on building more prisons. They assure that the new facilities and services will allow the State to comply with one of its most difficult constitutional mandates[4]: not to "mortify" the inmate but to "reeducate" him.

The first prison that was built to meet these needs was “Miguelete”. As early as 1889 it was considered to be the future penitentiary "model" for Uruguay and Latin America . The large courtyards, the cells designed according to the sanitary guidelines of that period, the learning system of trades and crafts, would reform the "disorganized" subject and turn him into a valuable person. By 1909, humidity had already done a lot of damage, training sessions had been discontinued, and the number of people in prison had almost doubled: from 800 to 1,300, occupying nine inmates each cell[5].

Today Uruguay has 29 prisons for adults. Only one of these was designed within the framework of the Public-Private Participation Law: Unit No. 1, popularly known as "the new prison of Punta de Rieles", due to its location.

It is the second largest prison in the country[6], designed to imprison 1,960 men. The private sector will have an entirely new role in Uruguay. According to the authorities, the bidding company is responsible to provide maintenance, cleaning, food, laundry and sale of groceries, in addition to projection, construction and equipment. In this way the government will be able to concentrate its efforts in custody, monitoring and social reintegration policies, lowering recurrence levels[7].

Given these circumstances, one might ask whether the introduction of the private sector in prison management is a reflection of a policy that, without taking into account one's experience, brings together different models of rehabilitation under the same system or, on the contrary, will imply adopting a new unique management paradigm. It will also be necessary to see what kind of useful citizen this hybrid intends to promote.

And with what new slogan they will come up with.

Angelina De los Santos is Uruguayan, she is 27 years old and she is one of those journalists who does nothing more (or less) than lift up stones to listen if there is noise below.

* Title of a story by Rodolfo Fogwill.
The slogan was created by Juan Carlos Gómez Folle in 1934, first director of the Penitentiary Institutes of Uruguay, who planned the building of an "Educational Working Colony", which became later the “Penal de Libertad”.

Furthermore, it could be said that even before. In the 18th century, when Uruguay was the Banda Oriental and was governed by Spain, there were two prisons in Montevideo for which there were already controversies over its management: the Public Prison, located in the Cabildo building and managed by the police, and the one in Real Ciudadela de la Plaza, which was managed by the military. None had "adequate" conditions for confinement, and although back then the situation was already worrying (so much so that the first Uruguayan Constitution (1830) in article 138 reads: "in no case will jails be allowed to mortify but only to ensure the defendant"), it was not until 1853 that the first prison parliamentary initiative was submitted to build a "comfortable and safe" public prison.

Fessler, D. (2012). Criminal law and punishment in Uruguay (1878-1907). Montevideo, Uruguay: Department of Communications, Communication Unit of the University of the Republic, pag. 19.

Article 26 of the Constitution of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay states: "The death penalty shall not be applied to anyone. In no case will prisons be allowed to mortify, but only to ensure the defendant and convicts, pursuing their reeducation, aptitude for work and crime prophylaxis".

[5] Landeira, R & Scapusio, B. (1997). Criminal System, review and alternatives. Montevideo, Uruguay: Carlos Álvarez, page 134.

[6] The first is the UIPPL N ° 4, former Santiago Vázquez - Comcar Prison Complex, with a capacity for 3,600 people, approximately.

[7] De los Santos, A. (La Diaria). The prison that is being built with the private sector will "rehabilitate", because there will be "given the conditions of confinement and services." March 21, 2018, from La Diaria Website: