An interview
to Luis Parodi,

Warden of Unit No. 6, Punta de Rieles Prison

Prison to Prison (P2P): How was this project conceived?

Luis Parodi (LP): I was working at INAU (Uruguayan Institute for Children and Adolescents) and I was offered the position of warden of this prison. I started working here, I implemented some of my ideas, and I realized that things were very clear in my mind. This project is the synthesis of what I've been doing for 30 years. I've got the feeling that many things that have been around all the time (authors, people, experiences) are condensed in the materialization of this village. This idea of a village reinforces my ideological beliefs, derived from accumulated experience.

My friends say that human beings believe in their adolescence throughout their lives. As I spent my adolescence at Tupambaé (a village in Cerro Largo) they say I'm recreating the village where I lived this period of my life.

Feel free to choose any of both explanations.

P2P: The strategy consists of imitating the outside as much as possible…

LP: The underlying idea is that the more prison resembles reality (if I may use the euphemism) the closer these guys will be of living reality. And by living it, they may change. That's our intention. The change depends on them. We want the prison to resemble the outside as much as possible to reduce the impact of the outside on the inside.

In turn, prison allows the outside to go through it, in order to abandon the prison's futile internal discussion. At the risk of repeating myself, I'd like to point out this prison is like a village; if nobody comes from the outside, if no salesman arrives to the village, we'll end up discussing the same issues all the time. In villages time doesn't go by. There're no events, so time doesn't go by. At Punta de Rieles, provided there are events, provided there's a "before" and an "afterwards", time starts going by, and at that moment we start the change process, the educational process.

P2P: And the outside you're trying to imitate is Montevideo.

LP: It's the society we live in, the capitalist society, so the same rules apply here. It's not Montevideo; we intend to imitate life outside. We take the village life because we're 600 people; if we were 15, we'd be country people. Being 600, we turn into a neighborhood. People call it neighborhood but I think it's more like a village.

Village mess should go to prison, and prison should learn to solve the mess in a democratic way. My obsession: that disputes may be resolved democratically. Otherwise, we end up in a dictatorship, as it happened before.

P2P: When you started the project, what buildings and infrastructure were already here?

LP: All the barracks and two businesses, the Warden's office and the cell block. Everything else was built later.
P2P: Was it an "organic" growth?

LP: It was developed to cope with the need for creating jobs and a communal living; there wasn't much planning, actually.
P2P: The streets were already there…

LP: The street layout remained the same. Streets are in a worse condition than in those days, but the layout is the same. We'd like to create a street behind the sawmill, to reach the other street, the one that takes to the high-school.

P2P: When you first arrived here, was the Police inside the premises?

LP: No, corrections officers were civilians, but they walked around with police officers. They imposed penalties all the time, no matter the reason. For example: there was this rule, "not going out after 6.30 p.m.". One day, an inmate told one of our co-workers: "My clothes are on the clothesline, you know". And she told him: "Ok, I'll go with you". And she was shot with a rubber bullet. The guards in the watchtowers had shot her!
P2P: The watchtowers have been abandoned…

LP: They've been abandoned since I arrived here. They should be part of your urban project.
P2P: We would like to include them in our architectural intervention, assigning them a new function.

LP: We welcome that. What new function? That's going to drive you crazy.

We've always wanted to turn those watchtowers into something related to our project. Their meaning was obvious in the past: a guard standing there with a gun; everybody knew why he was there. Maybe you didn't agree, but there was a guard there that shot you a rubber bullet if you didn't do certain things. We removed the guards but watchtowers are still there.

P2P: Their being abandoned has a meaning too…

LP: It's a message. We should give that message a meaning in line with our project. We abandoned the old meaning but we haven't been able to develop a new one. I'd thought of painting murals on them, I even talked with the School of Fine Arts, but that idea came to nothing.

Please do brainstorm freely, maybe crazy ideas will save us. Perhaps we're able to implement the most foolish idea, why not? Let's dream. Then we'll find out if we have the guts to do, if we're capable of overcoming our ideological prejudices and material limitations.

Fortunately, we didn't demolish watchtowers. History shouldn't be denied, but we shouldn't be doomed to live in the past either. “Let me go, you past!” It's a fascinating issue how much of the past remains. We should actually discuss the extent of our conservatism.

P2P: Going back to life in the village, if I were an inmate and wanted to start a business, who should I talk to about the space where to develop it? To you?

LP: You should talk with people in the labor area. I used to be in charge, because I was the Technical Deputy Warden. My general idea was to have an industrial area and a service area. Now there's a Labor Board. The guy hands out a piece of paper, they meet and decide where and how. Then, the guy has to find materials, ask the Fund for a loan…

P2P: Talking about the Fund, what's the economic system within this prison?

LP: Every business contributes a percentage of their earnings to a Common Fund entirely allocated to loans. The Fund is entitled to lend money to inmates who present a project. Up to 120 thousand pesos have been lent. It's a non-interest bearing fund, because we don't care about interest bearing. If the inmate doesn't pay, he can't be sent to prison, he's already there.

This is their money, it's not public money. A percentage of their earnings goes to the Ministry of the Interior, a percentage to the Fund and a percentage is used to pay vendors.

The Fund went through a crisis, we lived some unhappy situations. It's really hard for these people to hold to an idea. Well, it's also hard for us to support institutions, meetings, ideas. We should discuss again with everybody in the prison whether they still want the Fund, and what for…
P2P: The Fund is an inmate organization…

LP: Yes. The Fund is run by two inmates elected by their peers, together with a member of our team, because they are not allowed to handle money.

The idea was mine but implemented by the inmates. Some of them didn't sleep for three days, they spent all night studying how banks all over the world operate; finally, they submitted a proposal: audit committee, articles of incorporation, how loans would be granted, everything. We weren't able to implement their project in full. This is something that happens at the institutional level, these initiatives are hard to support, they fall apart.

P2P: How is money circulation organized?

LP: We pay the vendors, we pay salaries. Then inmates turn this money into tickets for internal circulation or to be sent to their families.

P2P: As for negotiations about space, we've realized there're some general urban strategies supporting decision-making…

LP: At some point we realized there were two zones in the village: an "up here" and a "down there". It's a social issue. So we thought we should move things "down there". We took services there, the high-school, some industries…

P2P: Did that difference arise on an organic basis?

LP: Yes it did, and they still feel it. There's still a lot to be done. What we've done so far is to take some services there. At present there're more services "down there" than "up here". We moved the grocery store (a business that failed), we moved the high school. They've got a confectionery business, Gigor bakery (the biggest business), the recycling plant…

But they've got this inevitable feeling of being next to power, the feeling you have when you're near decision-making (the prison's "up there" is near the main square, the entrance gate and the Warden's office). That's why people living downtown have more power than people living in Casavalle (in the outskirts of Montevideo): the City Hall is just two blocks away.

We've made a lot of improvements, but traditions are strong. Over the time we've learnt that culture is not linear, things aren't going to change because you have changed. People's sensations last for a long time.
P2P: Are inmates allowed to move freely from 7 in the morning to 6 in the afternoon?

LP: No. The idea is not that inmates hang out doing nothing. If they have nothing to do, they stay at the barrack. They go out with a purpose: to go to work, to practice sports, to study, to share a mate, but they don't go out to wander around. We try to organize the activities; inmates go out with a purpose; if they have nothing to do, they stay at the barrack. If they don't work, they don't go to the grocery store and that's it.

P2P: How are common spaces managed?

LP: Common spaces are the result of a long process. The first event took place at the meeting hall in the cell block. The following, at the soccer field. Then, at the square…

P2P: What do you mean by "events"? Something like the one we attended on Sunday?

LP: Cultural (as the other day's) or political events. There are two political events a year. One, on June 27, when the women that were incarcerated here during the military dictatorship visit us. The other one when we close the year; it's a sort of rendering of accounts. We give them account of our actions and they give us account of theirs. And they all take part. Inmates are always the ones closing the event.
P2P: Is there also a music band show?

No, I don't agree with that. A political event is just that, a political event.

There are some social events as well. For example, collective meetings organized by the Housing Co-operative. I truly believe that those spaces are really meaningful too.

When we lose those spaces -as is happening in Montevideo- I get really angry. When public spaces are abandoned to carelessness, we all lose. That's why we're trying to replicate public spaces inside the prison. Here everybody goes to watch soccer matches.

We're trying to build a democratic coexistence, we're trying to offer these citizens the democracy they never enjoyed: they were never part of a democracy. It's just that. We want to help them find a new place where they can struggle for life, find a different role. Their current place in society means stealing to struggle for life, and we want them to play a different role.
P2P: As for maintenance of common spaces, is it difficult to make inmates understand that to embellish a prison is not just embellishing a prison but common spaces as well?

LP: This has been really hard. I think there's been an improvement in the care of space. A high price has been paid for this achievement, because if these guys are transferred to another prison, they'll probably be killed for having taken care of a prison. However, we should all care for the space we all live in.
P2P: What do you mean by saying "they'll be killed" in another prison?

LP: Guys are afraid of going back, it's understandable. The other day they almost killed a guy that used to work at the bakery, where he had a managing position. He was released, he committed a robbery and he was convicted again. He was sent to another prison, and there he was beaten up for having been in charge of other inmates.
P2P: How are individual spaces like?

LP: That's another aspect of prisons to which not much thought is given. There are not individual places, but people need to be alone sometimes. There's no possibility of being alone here, and that drives me mad. It's really harmful for inmates. The only individual places in prisons are punishment cells. Isolation is considered a punishment.
P2P: By the way, what do you think of Unit No. 1?

LP: It's terrifying. It's something from before the 18th century. It's Foucault in his Discipline and Punish version. There's no mystery: an absurd operation. Anyway, I wish them luck.

It's absence of activity. They get up a 7 o'clock, and by 9 o'clock they have nothing else to do. And they are penalized for doing nothing. But if that's the only thing they are offered… They're offered table tennis? How long can you play table tennis if you have nothing else to do? Just a day or two.

I'm worried because a lot of deaths will occur. An inmate has already died. They brought first-time offenders there. First-time offenders confined are a problem. They're the most difficult inmates to work with, because adapting to prison takes time.

How much did it take us to adapt to school when we were kids? Nobody wanted to go to school; we all wanted to go out to play. Nobody did ever assess the cost of this, just the profit. How much did you leave behind to adapt to the school room? When you're 5 what you want is to go out to play, you don't want to be sitting in a school room. You attend school because your parents take you there, because society says you must go if you want to be someone. It's all part of the social apparatus.

That's why the model next door is outdated. We Uruguayans are like Italians, like Spaniards, we like eating spaghetti on Sundays and speaking badly of neighbors. Americans have a very clear idea about prisons. They're only concerned about prisoners being in prison. A lot of technology and no thought on relationships. You speak to Americans about relationships and they give you a really weird look.

Both approaches are diametrically opposed. This doesn't mean there's nothing to improve in our prison. They're two different perspectives. This doesn't mean we're OK here and over there it's a disaster.

Honestly, I see nothing that can be recovered over there, I can't find a way to do it. I think it doesn't make sense.
P2P: What do you think of these two completely different schemes sharing a dividing wall within the same prison system?

LP: It's hard to explain. I think that we are the (crazy) exception to the opinion prevailing in society; we'll be kicked out anytime now. That's the core of the ideologicalquantum. Society is not out in the street claiming for inmates to be treated well.

On the contrary, society reinforces that approach, even if it failed two thousand years ago. Being there is like being confined in any other prison in Uruguay but in better facilities. They're locked up 24/7: it's still confinement.

Some cells have already been destroyed. And worst of all: someone is going to say inmates don't deserve the new building because they break it all, but nobody is going to question the model.

When I say this model can't work I don't mean it should work as our prison does. I don't think ours is the only way of running a prison. No way, but confinement without any activity whatsoever only entails tragedy. Inmates don't have any opportunity to make decisions.
P2P: Considering the relationship between architecture and Power in the model next door, we think in this village-like prison those that had always been excluded have been somehow empowered through daily life in a unique urban context…

LP: That's the idea, that's the intention, that guys are able to live an experience that gives them back Uruguayan democracy. To achieve this they must be empowered from an urban perspective, from an ideological perspective and from a political perspective.

I learned here that if we offer the proper conditions, the other will necessary grow. Human beings and their circumstances. If circumstances improve, human beings improve. Circumstances are urban and working conditions, being able to sleep peacefully, having dignity, eating well.

I want life inside here to have a sense, as lower middle-class as possible. We have endowed inmates with some dignity, but there's still a lot to be done. Comfort should improve. We're very poor, but there's still some hope.

I believe in fight, I believe human beings learn from confrontation, from discussion, from struggle. Education means exchanging perspectives. When we discuss about prejudices, ideas, values, politics, with other people, we learn. That's the point.