Seven International Prisons That Put Rehabilitation Before Punishment

These prisons around the world are finding inventive ways to prepare prisoners for life after their release.

Inmates at Ethiopia's Mekelle Prison learn valuable skills that create sustainable livelihood opportunities. (Photo: Courtesy International Labour Organization)

Apr 23, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

With 2.2 million of its citizens behind bars, the U.S. incarcerates more of its population than any other country in the world. On top of that startling fact, federal studies show that roughly two-thirds of prisoners are rearrested for a new crime within three years of release. While the U.S. is known for its lengthy prison sentences, what happens during those decades behind bars doesn’t appear to be helping prisoners acclimate successfully to the outside world after their release.

A new report from Penal Reform International, an international criminal justice advocacy organization, highlights countries that are actively trying to change recidivism rates by offering inventive, productive programs to prisoners while they while away the hours behind bars. Here are seven of the most interesting programs.

Financial Literacy for Prisoners in Ethiopia

Young men and women at Mekelle Prison, in northern Ethiopia, are provided with microfinance and insurance loans to start cooperatives based on business ideas developed in educational and vocational classes offered while they’re behind bars. The prison has supported the start of 31 different co-ops in construction, textiles, and agriculture. The program, run through the International Labour Organization, an agency of the United Nations, aims to prepare prisoners with financial literacy and sustainable skills in everything from masonry to weaving that will help them contribute to the economy both during and after their incarceration. The program prides itself on working to empower women in particular and to promote gender equality by investing in their business ideas.

“I have been amazed to discover how prison life is like a university,” said 23-year-old prisoner Almaz Gebriel. “I have earned certificates in plumbing, woodwork, pig rearing, and beauty salon training. The cooperative experience has allowed me to earn an income while in prison.”

Working for the Weekend in Slovenia

In order to maintain ties to their communities, prisoners who demonstrate good behavior are allowed to maintain jobs outside the prison during the week and go to prison on the weekend. There are different versions of this “open regime,” according to Slovenian prison officials, depending on a person’s offense and the time they’ve spent in prison. The connections they are able to maintain with family and community members make it easier for them to succeed after their release.

Working and Studying Behind Bars in Uruguay

While many prisons throughout South America have gained attention for overcrowding and poor conditions from international human rights watchdog groups, Uruguay’s National Rehabilitation Center, outside Montevideo, boasts super-low recidivism rates and ample vocational and educational resources. While the average national recidivism rate in Uruguay is 60 percent, just 10 percent to 12 percent of prisoners return to the National Rehabilitation Center within five years of their release. Prisoners attend classes, enjoy access to a cybercafe, and learn trades such as plumbing, mechanics, and gardening.

Making Minimum Wage in Poland

Prisoners in Poland make minimum wage, which sets the country apart from places like the U.S. where the maximum hourly wage a federal inmate can hope to make is $1.15. While not all prisoners have access to work during incarceration, those who do are able to take jobs through partnerships with local businesses that offer work inside the prisons. In some communities, prisoners are able to work in educational facilities, health centers, social assistance foundations, and other local charity organizations.

Prisoners Study for Free in India

In an effort to democratize education for prisoners in India, the Indira Gandhi National Open University set up 94 study centers in jails across the country that offer a broad range of educational and vocational classes leading to degrees, free of cost. As of May 2015, more than 25,000 prisoners had participated in the program, earning everything from vocational certificates in baking or welding to master’s degrees in sociology. The university also works with inmates after their release to help them find employment.

Staying Connected With Belgium’s “Prison Cloud”

At Beveren Prison in Belgium, officials have introduced flat-screen computers to every cell to help prisoners acclimate to technologies that have developed during their time behind bars. The so-called Prison Cloud offers restricted Internet access, allows inmates to purchase food and cigarettes through an online system, and even lets prisoners download movies. The high-tech prison, which opened in 2014, is still working out some kinks, but it’s a promising start for people who might otherwise find themselves surrounded by unfamiliar and overwhelming technology after their release.

Reading for Freedom in Italy

Italian prisoners in Calabria can reduce their sentence by three days at a time for every book they read behind bars. The initiative is intended to incentivize reading and culture in the country’s overcrowded prisons. Avid readers’ sentence reductions are capped at 48 days per year, or 16 books every 12 months. The program was inspired by a similar initiative in Brazilian prisons called “Redemption through Reading,” wherein prisoners are able to reduce their sentences by four days for each book they read. Brazil’s program was created to boost literacy among prisoners.