Developing Countries Should Invest in Prisoners, Not Prisons

Prisons

Prison fence by Flick user Brad.K under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

By Carmen Garcia Gallego

Prisons are an essential element of a functioning justice system, but detention facilities often focus on punishing rather than rehabilitating convicts. This can lead to high rates of recidivism and be so expensive that issues with overcapacity, inadequate health services, and violence seem almost inevitable. There are 10 million people incarcerated worldwide, and overcrowding in prisons is an issue in 120 countries. These issues are particularly prevalent in developing countries like Brazil and Indonesia, which have large prison populations and insufficient means to maintain them.

Amidst these challenges, new models of detention focused on convict rehabilitation, vocational training, and greater inmate freedom have been successfully developed. New ideas on prison reform are essential to address the overwhelming issues that strain prison systems worldwide, and increased attention on mass incarceration presents a great opportunity for reform. Now is the time to look at existing prison models and enact change in a way that can both improve inmates’ well-being and advance countries’ development priorities in a cost-effective and sustainable manner.

The APAC Prison Model in Brazil

Brazil has the third-highest prison population in the world, behind the United States and China, with over 690,000 prisoners. Prisons are a big issue in Brazil, where overcrowding, security, violence, and poor conditions are regularly featured on news headlines. In the first week of 2017, almost 100 people were killed in gang-related violence in prisons in Manaus and Roraima. In the same week, 184 inmates escaped. Yet Brazilian prisons are also making the headlines for a different reason: treating some convicts humanely.

The Association for the Protection and Assistance to Convicts (APAC) opened its first prison in Brazil in 1972 and now runs 50 facilities. APAC is overseen by the faith-based non-profit Brazilian Fraternity of Assistance to the Convicted (FBAC). Unlike public and private prisons, APAC prisons give inmates – called recuperandos, “recovering people” – freedom, work, and study opportunities. Prisoners hold the key to their own cells, wash their own clothes, cook their own meals, study, and attend group therapy sessions. There are currently 3,500 recuperandos in APAC facilities, roughly 0.5 percent of the entire Brazilian prison population. To be incarcerated at an APAC facility, inmates must first pass through the national penitentiary system and show remorse, willingness to work and study, and commitment to the APAC philosophy. If they pass and meet certain requirements – for example, they must not be serving a lifelong sentence and they must have family living in the solicited region – they may be transferred by a judge to an APAC prison.

Transfer can be extremely beneficial to inmates. One inmate, who was serving a sentence for drug trafficking, was transferred to an APAC prison after four months in a conventional correctional facility. Now, she is the head of a prison council and works to reduce her 8-year sentence. Inmates can receive drug rehabilitation courses in partnership with local universities on how to prevent drug use, and they are taught that they are co-responsible for their own recovery. Another recuperando was given jail time for theft and, upon entry into the APAC system, took a training course on civil construction and landed a job in the field after serving his sentence. Prisoners do not escape, partly because a failed escape attempt will land them back in a conventional prison, but also because being in an APAC facility gives inmates a sense of community and responsibility. This is reflected in impressive recidivism rates: 7 to 20 percent of APAC prisoners go back to jail at some point, well below the national average of 70 percent.

APAC prisons have not only benefited inmates; they have also helped Brazil save money, manage overcapacity, and fill skills gaps. Maintaining a prisoner in an APAC facility costs one third of maintaining one in a state prison: the Brazilian state pays 3000 reais (nearly $800) on average per prisoner in a state prison versus 950 reais (around $250) for an APAC recuperando. The enormous difference is due to the lack of paid prison guards and weapons and the costs saved by allowing prisoners to farm, cook, clean facilities, and perform maintenance tasks as needed.

If, hypothetically, half of Brazil’s 690,000 prisoners were transferred from a federal prison to an APAC facility, Brazil could save nearly 1.5 billion reais (over $400 million) and invest this money in education, health, or infrastructure. These investments are much more likely to create jobs and better provide for the people, which will decrease incentives to commit crimes in the first place. Providing vocational training at APAC facilities can also help inmates find quality job opportunities after serving their sentences and help fill some of the skills gap in Brazil’s workforce. For example, tourism will create 1.5 million jobs in Brazil by 2027 – jobs that will require language and hospitality skills. Agriculture makes up 45 percent of all Brazilian exports, and changing technologies will require workers with more technical skills to work in agriculture. Training recuperandos in the tourism and agriculture sectors can help meet future demand and complement existing APAC programs that train inmates to be car mechanics, painters, and security officers, among others.

Bringing the APAC Model to Indonesia

19 countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia have APAC-like prisons. They are notably absent from Indonesia, a country which could benefit tremendously from the model. Indonesia’s prison population has nearly quadrupled since 2000, making it the seventh largest in the world today, with roughly 248,000 prisoners. The prison system in Indonesia faces challenges of overcrowding, escapes, riots, and understaffing like that of Brazil. Corrupt prison staff provide drugs, outings, and phones to wealthy convicts. Prisons are at 198% of capacity, making it difficult for prison guards to monitor communications to counter the important issue of radicalization. In 2016, for example, a radicalized ex-convict launched a suicide bomb attack in Jakarta. He had been influenced by an Islamist cleric in prison who, while incarcerated, was able to publish his allegiance to the Islamic State on Facebook.

Implementing the APAC model in Indonesia would help address some of these issues. Receiving education and skills training at APAC prisons could discourage inmates from becoming radicalized and help them find jobs after serving their sentences. Levels of labor productivity are exceptionally low in Indonesia, and almost one-third of the workforce is in a position of vulnerable employment. Indonesia ranks low in terms of technological readiness and has made efforts to increase its economic competitiveness, but technological advances threaten to thwart economic growth. Addressing some of these issues will require a more productive, skilled workforce and placing a greater emphasis on the manufacturing and high value services sectors. Providing prisoners with technical and vocational training can help fill some of these skills gaps, and it can ensure that convicts are prepared for the jobs of the future when they are reintegrated into society.

With regards to improving inmates’ well-being, the rehabilitation and education aspect of the APAC model could greatly aid the drug crisis in Indonesian prisons. One of the major reasons for Indonesia’s large prison population is that the country criminalizes narcotics use with a three-year sentence. Over 80 percent of Indonesian inmates are in jail due to narcotics-related charges. The drug problem continues within jails; prisoners contract HIV within cells and, in 2013, even a meth lab was found inside Indonesia’s biggest prison, Cipinang. Transferring some of these addicted inmates to APAC-like facilities and offering them rehabilitation and education could help alleviate their addictions, reduce HIV mortality rates, and decrease prison overcrowding.

Education and rehabilitation benefit both inmates and the state, and Indonesia stands to gain from other aspects of the APAC model as well. First, Indonesia could save a large sum of money and address the problem of overcapacity by reallocating prison guards. In 2015, there were only 15,000 prison guards in the entire federal prison system and they earned an average $300 a month. Low pay and understaffing can lead to corruption, escapes, drug use, and radicalization, among others, so this issue must be promptly addressed. Since APAC prisons require little to no guards, transferring prisoners to APAC facilities would allow federal prison personnel to pay better attention to remaining convicts. They could receive higher pay and more staff could be hired with the amount saved.

Second, Indonesia could save money on maintaining the prisoners themselves. The Indonesian government spends 15,000 rupiah (about $1 dollar) per prisoner per day – which translates to $90 billion per year. If APAC facilities in Indonesia had similar cost structures to those in Brazil (i.e. if the cost of maintaining a prisoner in an APAC facility were one-third the cost of maintaining one in a federal prison), and if just 20 percent of the prison population were transferred to APAC facilities, over $12 million could be saved per year. If APAC facilities yielded lower recidivism rates, overall cost savings could increase yearly. These funds could be reinvested in education, social reform, health, or rehabilitation programs for drug offenders. However, it is unclear whether the same cost savings would apply – further analysis should be conducted on this matter.

Lastly, the Indonesian Ministry of Justice and Human Rights announced that 49 prisons, 13 detention centers, and 62 rehabilitations centers would be constructed in 2015. In 2016, plans for a new high-security prison and four other new prisons were also announced. It is unclear how much progress has been made on these initiatives, but it signals that Indonesia is paying attention to prison-related issues and is aware of the need for reform. This presents a great opportunity to promote the APAC model and install it in detention and rehabilitation centers. These centers could be built instead of high-security facilities and conventional prisons, cutting construction costs and transferring non-violent prisoners to detention centers, thereby addressing the issue of overcapacity, and maintaining dangerous convicts in conventional and high-security prisons.

Broader Implications and Recommendations for Prison Reform

The APAC system could be implemented in both developed and developing countries, beyond Brazil to countries like Indonesia. However, the model’s success in Brazil does not guarantee that it will be equally successful elsewhere. Even in Brazil, local involvement and political will are necessary to open APAC prisons, and efforts to open new facilities have been thwarted in the past due to financial issues, overcrowding, and corruption. Nevertheless, there are APAC prisons in 19 countries and those that are running are thriving, suggesting that the model can be replicated in different contexts. Countries interested in this model must first consider social, economic, and political factors, strengths and weaknesses of current penitentiary systems, and skills and workforce needs. The amount of money saved, the number of prisoners held, and the types of education and rehabilitation offered at the facilities would vary from country to country. Further study on potential impact should be conducted to ensure that the APAC system is viable and beneficial in the long run, in Indonesia or in any other country.

It is worth noting that, in Brazil, APAC only hosts a small fraction of the whole prison population. Even if the program were extended, not all prisoners would be eligible for transfer. Inmates in high-level security facilities, violent persons, and repeat offenders are unlikely to be given the keys to their own cells. However, APAC facilities can host vulnerable populations, non-violent and low-severity offenders, and prisoners awaiting trial worldwide. Therefore, the APAC solution is not a one size fits all: it may only benefit a subset of the prison population, but it should still be considered as part of prison reform due to the tremendous development opportunities it presents.

In sum, reforming prisons should be a development priority. Introducing more humane, cost-effective prison systems can save countries millions of dollars to reinvest in line with development priorities, decrease recidivism rates, and reintegrate ex-convicts into the workforce in ways that reduce skills gaps and advance countries’ economic interests.

 

 

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