to Juan Miguel Petit,
Parliamentary Commissioner for the Prison System
Prison to Prison (P2P): Would you please let us know what the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Prison System is?
Juan Miguel Petit (JMP): The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Prison System responds to an office created in 2005 for the parliamentary monitoring of human rights observance within the Uruguayan prison system, in compliance with domestic and international rules. The Commissioner has access to the whole prison system, is authorized to visit the premises, carry out general inspections and make recommendations to promote human rights. The Commissioner reports to the Parliament, is bound to submit one annual report and special reports, and, at the same time, operates as a preventive mechanism.
P2P: As for the monitoring of human rights within prisons, the 2009 UN's Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture in Uruguay marked a breaking point. Which was the situation of Uruguayan prisons at that time?
JMP: In 2009 Uruguay had an old-fashioned prison system, inherited from a quite innovative system that dated back to the 1950s. Originally, this system depended from the Ministry of Education and Culture and its officers were not police officers. Soon before the military dictatorship (1973-1985) the management of the prison system passed to the Police. It was not changed nor updated afterwards. So, the prison system continued operating within the Ministry of the Interior under an extremely old organization scheme.
In 2010 some major changes started and the prison system reform became a matter of discussion. For instance, the National Prison Rehabilitation Institution (INR) was created, the civil service management structure was incorporated, healthcare within prisons was made available, and some new initiatives started to be implemented, as Unit No. 6 Punta de Rieles. This is the current situation. The full picture of the prison system is still highly heterogeneous; very different realities coexist, and the new approaches being implemented are not even aligned. Encouraging initiatives and black holes exist. There are still important unresolved matters.
P2P: So, what's the system's current situation?
JMP: This is a transition and defining time. Many aspects have improved, others haven't. There is a permanent arm wrestle between the new and the old. Some experiments have been implemented, such as the new prison under the public-private partnership management, or new experiences such as Punta de Rieles, that need to consolidate before we can say it's a conquered area.
There is still a lot to be defined, there are a lot of old problems, a lot of unsatisfied needs; for example, the need for technical teams for social or family care, psychological and psychiatric care, drug-addiction care, job training or educational opportunities, that are still not enough.
While there have been improvements in many areas, those same areas still lag behind, especially if compared with Uruguay records in other social policy areas. I think prison system indicators are quite below other indicators. Uruguay ranks 22nd in the list of countries with higher number of incarcerated people; this is striking and we should know the reason: some social conflicts are being resolved through prison, what causes lots of problems.
At first, we had an old-fashioned model; then a massive growth in prison population (tripled in less than 15 years) occurred. With the addition of new serious social issues such as social exclusion, drug trafficking, school dropout in most vulnerable sectors, etc., we are clearly facing the perfect storm.
P2P: Do you think something is being learned from the experiences you point out as positive in the reports, or they are just being accumulated without further analysis?
JMP: I think we have learned a lot. But we, Uruguayans, are very competitive players. We are few people, our country is almost empty, and for this reason competition in certain areas is really hard. And it's sometimes hard to acknowledge success and progress. The same happens at the institutional level. Institutional learning somehow responds to this cultural characteristic as well.
Several institutions show positive features: Punta de Rieles (Unit n°6), Juan Soler, Durazno, Artigas, Salto, Comcar Industrial Pole. It's still hard to recognize and take the good things to build a model on that basis. Then yes, I think some, but not all, experiences are being accumulated.
P2P: You have always sustained that imitating the outside within the prisons is a positive strategy.
JMP: Yes, even if this is not an idea of my own; it's historically been that way. This "standardization" principle is included in the Nelson Mandela Rules, United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. It's a cornerstone establishing that the more life in prisons resembles life outside of prisons, the lower the recidivism rate will be.
The great achievement of some facilities is they've managed to recreate a living environment similar to society, and profit from this environment to give the inmates tools that will help them to live in the outside world. There's an old saying that states that you can't train a soccer player inside a lift: you can't prepare a person to live in liberty, in confinement.
It's easy to say but hard to apply. But I truly believe that good living conditions save people from falling into violence. Of course, we also need special treatments, but these treatments, if not accompanied by a meaningful -not free of conflicts, but meaningful- coexistence, don't work.
P2P: Which is, in your opinion, the role of space and its material layout within this approach or within a more punitive one?
JMP: I think that in these rather unexplored aspects we should learn from what is being done and think about the progresses being attained.
We are still too tied to the "prison places" scheme, and we lack knowledge about architectural design. Architecture is thought to live in society with others, and prison is thought to live in a very particular way; it's almost an oxymoron, a contradiction in itself.
I think architecture is very important. The designs applied by us are really very coarse, and this undoubtedly matters. It's not like those Japanese capsule hotels providing basic overnight accommodation, where the capsule design is not that important. Inmates spend many hours in these spaces, many hours thinking under very particular sensitive conditions.
P2P: Talking about Punta de Rieles, how would you explain the current situation, the overlapping of such different approaches?
JMP: Your question makes me think about this issue. I think the reason of overlapping is that the new approach is being developed on the go and is not completely defined yet. And this is why opposite approaches coexist. This is not the only example.
In this case, opposition is evident because, by chance, both experiences are being developed next to each other. When you look at the new prison from the old Punta de Rieles prison, it seems you're looking at a Texas mega-prison. And when you look at the old one from the new one, it seems that you are looking at the outskirts of Montevideo. They are very different indeed.
There are positive and negative aspects. One negative aspect is that there isn't a clearly defined approach; instead, very different approaches coexist and this may produce opposing forces that cancel each other out. One positive aspect is that we perceive that there's a will to do things, there's a will to change the prison system; not everything is dead. Things are moving on.
P2P: You've been able to visit both prisons at Punta de Rieles. We could only visit one. Could you tell us what do you think about the new one?
JMP: I haven't talked much about the new prison because I'd rather wait until it's well established, proved, adjusted. It's a really new experience. We should wait; it's too soon to draw any conclusions.
I've taken lots of notes, and I've already submitted some of them. I think some adjustments should be made, mainly in order to create a living environment with educational and integrations features. To fulfill this principle several adjustments would be necessary.
P2P: In view of these foreign prison schemes, it seems that our society finds it difficult to develop its own approaches.
JMP: The new approach (currently operational) is the result of a very long process. No institutional stakeholder presented any different approach or alternative. This is a weakness of our society: its low capacity to make proposals when looking for solutions.
It's the difference between a tailor-made suit and an off-the-rack suit. This solution solves a number of problems that seemed too difficult to solve, such as maintenance, food, clothes, cleaning and financing. It was an effort to innovate, to change a neglected prison reality. That's positive, but I'm very careful when it comes to evaluation.
P2P: Following the example of the off-the-rack suit, the signature of the agreement entailed the purchase of the architectural design…
JMP: The design has undergone some adjustments and modifications. We expect that Uruguay, where everything is toned down, tones some aspects of this foreign design down as well. Actually, this has already been done in the past months. For example, no hot water was to be supplied in the prison, but this was modified on account of Uruguayan habit to drink mate. Some details are related to our life and culture, while others are of a structural nature.
P2P: Finally, in your opinion, what's the ideal prison system?
JMP: I wouldn't know how to answer that question, I don't know that much. But in my opinion the ideal prison would be that creating an environment as less prison-like as possible. I refer to good Uruguayan and foreign experiences of manageable scales; small, customized prisons combining a certain environment with a specific work, always within the framework of positive coexistence.
Humankind took 18 centuries to create prisons as we know them. We've been living with this monster for two centuries. When Chinese were asked their opinion about the French Revolution, historians answered it was a very interesting event, but that it was too early to draw any conclusions. The same could be said on prisons.