The Uruguayan Prison with a ‘Human Touch’

Screeshot of a video posted on YouTube of Punta de Rieles prison entrance, in Montevideo, Uruguay, where prisoners lives as if they were in a village.

In Uruguay, you'll find a prison called Punta de Rieles (“Rail End”) in a neighborhood by the same name, which used to be the end of the line for the first streetcars in Montevideo, the country's capital. It's also a place where the inmates’ lives don't differ much from life on the outside, as Punta de Rieles takes a particularly “human approach” to incarceration.

Seen from the outside, it's not any different from other correctional facilities: the compound is still surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Things change dramatically on the inside, however, where there are about 200 prison officers—mostly unarmed women—with professional backgrounds in social work, psychology, and human rights.

The inmates at Punta de Rieles have been convicted and sentenced for a number of crimes, with the exception of sexually based assault and drug trafficking.

The facility's director, Rolando Arbesún, says the idea is to manage the correctional facility as if it were a village:

Nos gusta pensarla más como un pueblo, que tenga una dinámica de vida lo más parecido posible al exterior. Eso implica un volumen de trabajo bastante importante, actividades muy importantes, pero también mucha presencia del afuera, del mundo externo de la prisión dentro de Punta de Rieles. Porque si uno está preparando a estos hombres para que vivan en libertad, hay que prepararlos en un escenario que se parezca lo más posible dentro de las limitaciones de lo que se pueda hacer en una prisión.

We like to think of this facility as if it were a village, with the same daily-life dynamics found on the outside. This means an important work volume, very important activities, but also a significant presence of life on the outside, from the world that is external to Punta de Rieles. Because if we are preparing these men so they can live in freedom, we have to prepare them against a backdrop that's much more similar [to freedom] than what can be found in a prison.

Opened in 2010 at the site of a previous traditional prison, Punta de Rieles is the first correctional facility in Uruguay ever managed by personnel not related to the military. Inside the prison, female social workers get along with the inmates and help them to solve their problems. The aim is not only to prepare the inmates for a life outside the prison, but also to humanize the time they spend behind bars.

The website Cosecha Roja calls it an anti-prison space, and shares some special features of the facility:

Puntas de Rieles alberga a unos seiscientos hombres: no tienen comisiones internas ni delegados, eso establecería una distancia, un “ellos” y un “nosotros”. La relación es directa y horizontal. Aquí no hay intentos de evasión, no existe el aislamiento para sancionar a los que transgreden las reglas de convivencia y no se hacen requisas sin su expresa autorización, cuando existen datos puntuales y concretos de alguna irregularidad, y está prohibido hacerlas de noche.
[algunos reclusos] se acercan al director, lo saludan con un beso (esta costumbre moderna que interpela a cierta masculinidad) y palmadas en el hombro, se llaman por el nombre de pila.

Puntas de Rieles holds about 600 men: they don't have internal committees or delegates, as that would set a distance, a “they” and an “us”. The relationship is direct and horizontal. Here there are no breakout attempts, there is no isolation as a way of punishing those who violate communal living rules, and we don't confiscate personal property without express authorization (only when there is concrete information about a certain irregularity, and even then it can't be carried out in the middle of the night). [Some inmates] get close to the director, they greet him with a kiss (this modern habit that puts some inmates’ manhood into question) and pat him on the shoulder. They use their given names.

The facility has a library, a computer center, a bakery, and a candy shop. Inmates prepare bread and sell it to the public, and there's a brickworks shop, so prisoners can learn this useful trade. There is even a yoga workshop. In the video below, some of these activities are on display, along with a sports competition.

In Punta de Rieles, 85 percent of the inmates work at one or more of the 22 business ventures available inside the correctional facility. The recidivism rate is very low, with just 2 percent of the inmates committing new crimes after going free. (This figure is at 50 percent in the rest of the nation's prison system.) In the last year, 201 men recovered their freedom and only four of them repeated a criminal offense.

On Twitter, users also expressed themselves about the accomplishments of this innovative system:

Punta de Rieles correctional center, inmates business ventures such as pottery works, panel building, coffee shop, garden.

Student (my former student of Linear Algebra I), held at Punta de Rieles correctional center. A great story.

A year ago today, we started a great working project with the inmates of Punta de Rieles! Yoga and values!

During Uruguay's dictatorship from 1973 to 1985, the old Punta de Rieles infrastructure was used as a detention center for men. When another prison opened, the inmates were transferred and the site became a female prison, and over 700 female political prisoners were held there.

Damián Barbosa refers to this history in the following tweet:

What's now the village prison Punta de Rieles has its own memory.

The case of Roy Vitalis, an inmate at Punta de Rieles, demonstrates the results the prison's “alternative” approach:

Roy Vitalis, de 36 años, está preso en la cárcel de Punta de Rieles. Cada día, pasadas las 9:00 de la mañana, emprende viaje en bicicleta hasta la Facultad de Ingeniería, donde cursa sus estudios.

Incluso, en un principio se le había dicho que tenía que asistir con grilletes y custodios armados, pero finalmente logró esquivar esas trabas. […] Actualmente ya no requiere de autorización especial. Va y vuelve en bicicleta; recorre alrededor de 30 km por día, de lunes a viernes.

36-year-old Roy Vitalis is an inmate at Punta de Rieles prison. Each day, a little after 9:00 a.m., he starts his route by bike all the way to the Engineering School, where he takes up his higher education lessons.

When he started, he was told to use shackles and go with armed guards, but he managed to avoid these obstacles. […] Today he no longer needs any special authorization. He comes and goes by bike, traveling about 30 kilometers [about 20 miles] each day, Monday through Friday.

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