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Punta de Rieles is home to around 600 prisoners, 38 small businesses and a thriving inmate community. ...
2019-05-06 00:00:00

The Un-Prison
Life Inside Uruguay’s Most Progressive Prison

Photo by Calvin Ma / Unsplash
The Un-Prison
The Un-Prison

It has a bakery, a hairdresser, a farm with eco-friendly food, and even a playground for children who visit. The inmates can set up their own companies, and some even have the right to go outside. This is how Uruguay’s most progressive prison looks.

Read in 16 minutes

Ahead of me are just two little towers. They’re empty. The soldiers only stand on the ones by the wall, which looks more like a concrete fence. The only police I pass are leaning on a car, bored. There are 10 police. And more than 600 prisoners.

Up until 7pm, the inmates are almost free. They bake bread and cakes, tattoo each other, cut hair, learn maths, plant cabbages, build kayaks. They prepare the next editions of a newspaper, radio shows, or rock performances. They finish high school; some of them finish university. They play football (in Uruguay a prison football league has been playing for decades; the prisoners tour by bus). They box, practice yoga poses, and study new roles – for theatre performances, but also for the new lives that will start when they leave the walls of the prison.

Welcome to Punta de Rieles.

A start-up loan

I meet the warden early in the morning, in front of a bank in central Montevideo. He smells of mate and alcohol. Yesterday Uruguay played Ecuador. José Luis Parodi has just registered more companies for his inmates and opened bank accounts for them. Punta de Rieles is home to 38 such companies – each of them received a start-up loan from the facility. If the business survives, repayment starts after three months; the prison takes 10% of the company’s monthly earnings. “It’s the only fund in the world that lends interest-free, and the borrower can’t go to prison, because he’s already there,” Parodi jokes.

He’s tall, tanned, pugnacious. We drive to the prison, on the outskirts of the capital.

“Every person acts with dignity if he’s treated with dignity,” he says sententiously. That’s the guiding principle of Punta de Rieles, where staff don’t take away the prisoners’ personal effects (even telephones), prisoners are never locked in solitary confinement, and the guards don’t escort them from Point A to Point B. There aren’t many prisoners, because, as the warden says, a prison is nothing but concentrated anxieties. “If you have two thousand of them, there’s no way to rein them in. And there’s one more rule: make this place as much like the outside world as possible.”

A cup of coffee is waiting for him in his office. The door is open, and will remain so all day. “Now go, see for yourself,” he says, shooing me away like a persistent fly, before sitting down to his paperwork.

A town behind bars

The prison calls to mind a green meadow scored by sandy roads. Along them stand the small, most often one-storey buildings of the companies (only the administrative and residential buildings have more than one floor). In the block plant, concrete bricks are drying before being sold outside. Enrique Iglesias rings out from the speakers, men tap along with the melody, the sun shines.

The bakery – the largest company – is run by two prisoners, who employ 110 others. 5000 loaves go out for delivery every day. I watch how some prisoners struggle with the yeast, while others measure out portions of bright white flour in bags. “You look like you’re weighing up coke,” I say. They look at each other, and smile after a moment. It’s only then that I realize the joke wasn’t a very good one; nobody in this prison is here for drugs or sexual offences. “Most of them are men aged eighteen to twenty-nine; they’re in for robbery,” the warden says.

I leave. From the pastry shop comes the thrilling aroma of biscuits with a guava filling. Next door is a shop, on the counter are scrip cards. Even though almost everyone is earning, nobody here has money; they exchange their salaries for vouchers, with values marked off. Their families can pay out cash. I pass the craftsmen’s shop (its speciality: lamps from ice cream sticks) and the tattoo parlour, whose owner reports proudly that he’s inked 90% of the prison population. Finally, I get to the hairdresser.

“I used to think it was a job for gays,” Martín Castro admits. “But once when I was out on furlough, a friend asked for a haircut and said he’d cut mine, and I did a better job.” He learned techniques on YouTube. “Oh, look,” he says, lifting the fringe of the prisoner in the chair. “I know how to hide this receding hairline.” He cuts the hair of prisoners, their families who come to visit, police officers and their children. When it’s warm, he chases them with a spray bottle. “The police are first in line, those parasites. In the last prison, Concar, I’d cut the guards’ hair for free in exchange for permission to leave my cell. Here, I give them a discount. I run a razor over their throats. And it never occurs to me to press down,” he jokes.

He’s 35, a former welder. He got eight years for armed robbery – a shootout occurred; he lost part of his ear. That day he was supposed to grab $1.5 million. He’s already served six years and three months in various prisons (there are 29 in Uruguay). He hopes his sentence will be commuted for good behaviour and for his work, but he’s already been waiting a year for his request to be reviewed. On the street, he’s found a spot for a new shop, a school where he can get his papers, even used chairs. When talking with him, I note a few words of prison slang. When he says en la calle (‘on the street’), he’s not thinking of the road inside the prison, but life outside it. When he says privados, he’s not talking at all of anything ‘private’, but about privados de libertad – ‘deprived of liberty’. Rancho isn’t a ‘ranch’, but the slop that’s most often on the prison menu – a brown soup with noodles or rice.

“Today my head’s in a different place,” says Martín. “I have a legal business, three employees. I used to wear a five-thousand dollar watch; criminals live for show. Now I don’t need ostentation. I live for myself. I wear the same trainers; when they’re worn out, I buy exactly the same model. Work brings back dignity. It’s a shame the judge doesn’t see this change of mentality. I’ll tell you, the closer you are to the end, the more nervous you get. Freedom should be progressive, so you can prepare for life on the outside – when I came in here, there was no WhatsApp or Skype. And your family? You haven’t been there for ten years, and suddenly you’re there all the time. You can go mad!”

“I don’t want to waste time”

I go to the end of the prison, to the rubbish sorting facility. Every day lorries bring in kilograms of material to be sorted, mostly electronics. The workers are happy to see me. They show me the puppies that were born here recently; they want to give me one.

I’m accompanied on my stroll by Fernando Milloni, who has built up so much trust that during the day he can come and go from the prison on his own (he’s one of three prisoners with this privilege). I think he’s also grown to like me, because he shows me one of the worst spots – the kitchen for prisoners, which smells so terrible that as soon as I step over the threshold I have the urge to vomit. In the cold storage hang sides of pork; they use one and a half per day. There’s also milk in bags. Why do they serve it to the prisoners like they do to children? Fernando doesn’t know. But he cooks for himself. In the kitchen, he steps onto the scale and determines with horror that he has lost three kilos (he hasn’t had time to train). He’s dressed in a white vest, white shoes, light jeans. Each time we pass a disinfectant dispenser, he washes his hands.

Fernando takes me to the residential building. The dog sitting in the guards’ office is called Fatiga (‘Fatigue’). He doesn’t want anything, not even to lift his head. A prisoner wanders along the corridor with lit incense. In the common kitchen, there’s a table made by Fernando; a couch and a laundry drying rack, all made from pallets; some houseplants. It’s pleasant. In his cell he has a TV, a mobile phone to call his family (the internet is theoretically forbidden), and two sets of bunk beds. Fernando’s bed isn’t made, because he got up at 6am. “I don’t want to waste time, which I’m already losing here,” he says.

Finally, we sit down on the playground. The prisoners made it for their visiting children from recycled materials, just like the garden and the tables (there are three visits per week). Between the tyre swings grow grass, chamomile, aloe.

Fernando’s life revolves around the bakery. He’s been working there since he was 11, and wants to set up his own on the street. Here, he’s taught the trade to 25 people, but it wasn’t easy. “Some people have problems listening to instructions; they prefer to do it their way, but when you’re working with food, you have to keep the hygiene rules,” he says. Actually, it’s for a bakery that he’s in here. Specifically, for an armed robbery. “It’s wild! Me, a baker, can you imagine?” he bursts out. “They’ve got me mixed up with somebody.” (“The prisoners always lie,” the warden tells me later. “They try to minimize their guilt. They don’t want to take full responsibility for their actions.”)

Before Fernando got to Punta de Rieles, he was in Concar, where there are more than 3000 prisoners. He was depressed, cutting himself; he shows scars masked by tattoos. Everything changed because of a woman. They met when he was here. Over the phone. A friend introduced them, they talked for a month, and when they saw each other, it was love. Recently their third child was born: a son, Johan. Fernando carved a cradle for him. He’s 31 years old, and he can’t wait for freedom. He thinks Punta de Rieles prepared him for it. “If you tie up a dog and let him out after a few years, he’ll come out mad.”

Green island

I drop in once more to the quinta, a small farm with organic food. Six men work here – today they’re planting cabbage. There’s also tomatoes, beans and lettuce. I take pictures of them. The boys smile at me, then tell me to put the camera away. They uncover the bushes where they grow marijuana. Uruguay is the first country in the world that has completely legalized cultivation of cannabis. But not in prison, of course.

“Other than that, in here it’s like on the street,” one says. “We’re still missing cars and women.”

“Beaches and beers, too,” another farmer chimes in. So I go and look for some beer. In the casino.

At the table sit the operators, which is what they call the guards. They include many women. One of the revolutionary ideas of Warden Parodi is taking away the guards’ guns, and increasing the number of women. The prisoners relate better to them than to men, without aggression. One of the female guards, with a song on her lips, sits down to a meal of chicken with rice and salad. The casino, it turns out, is the staff canteen.

“Some people complain that the prisoners might even want to be here,” the woman says. “But I haven’t met any yet. Who would want to be behind bars?”

A nurse interrupts: “I think they have it too good here. They don’t learn warmth; they knock on my door impatiently. I think they should all be made to study. Some of them don’t do anything. But I have to admit that of all the prisons where I’ve worked, this is the calmest. They have a social life, a professional life. I only have thirty-nine patients on antidepressants. We have the fewest people on medications, the lowest incidence of violence, escapes and suicides.”

“But in Uruguay, things aren’t always so rosy,” says an operator who’s also worked in several prisons. “Here, there’s one employee for every forty prisoners. In Concar, there’s one for several hundred. In the evenings, Concar is a no-man’s-land.”

According to a report from Prison Insider, which collects information on prisons around the world, the situation in Uruguay really isn’t so jolly. They have the continent’s second-highest incarceration rate (after Brazil): 297 people per 100,000 (by comparison, Poland has 197; the UK has 140.) There are several reasons, primarily a repressive policy on crime that translates into people regularly being thrown behind bars while their trials are still ongoing (they make up more than 60% of the prisoners). In light of the limited personnel, the prisoners don’t have access to the lessons, walks or recreation they’re entitled to. Violence is a problem. Killing is the most frequent cause of death behind bars.

The prisons are so overcrowded that some prisoners sleep on the floor. The sanitary conditions are so poor that there are rodents, and the food so bad that prisoners are allowed to cook in their cells. In this respect, nothing has changed since the 1970s, when a notorious breakout from Punta Carretas occurred: 111 prisoners escaped through the same tunnel, setting a new Guinness World Record. Among them was José Mujica, who later became the head of state, and a few years later gained fame as the world’s poorest president. This former fighter of the Tupamaros, a group of urban guerrillas who wanted to overthrow capitalism in Uruguay, served the second part of his long sentence in the Libertad prison. Yes, that prison – the harshest one under the Uruguayan dictatorship (1972-1985) – was named ‘Freedom’.

“For a huge number of detainees, their time in prison makes no sense,” a Uruguayan parliamentary commissioner on prisons wrote in 2016. Everywhere except in Punta de Rieles. According to a 2015 UN report, of 201 prisoners released up to that point, only four ended up back inside. The recidivism rate among those who are studying or working (which not all are) was 6%. Escapes are rare, even though the prisoners are let out on all-day passes. This year, it’s happened twice – the escapees were captured immediately. One in his mother’s house, which is where they usually head. He asked the police: “Tell Luis to forgive me.”

Debt repayment

I return to the warden’s office. He’s singing a Manu Chao song under his breath: “If you force me to choose between you and my values…” The yoga instructor, walking out to the corridor with her mat under her arm, finishes the line: “…know that without them I’m lost.”

Parodi is charismatic and direct. He’s the one who reformed the prison, where he was hired in 2012. A footballer and a member of the Tupamaros as a youth, he spent the time of the dictatorship in Chile, Cuba and France. He didn’t know French; his wife was pregnant. He got a job in a clinic for disabled people. Then he set up a neighbourhood crèche. After returning to Uruguay, he first worked with disabled people, then in a borstal, a women’s prison, and one for men. “This is my place in the world. My guerrilla friends joke: ‘You never did time, so you banged yourself up.’ Who knows?”

He asks about my day; I tell him. I point out that according to some operators, the prisoners have it too good here, and should be forced to work or study. “Nobody in the prison is coddled. The day a prisoner wants to stay here, we’re going to have a problem. As Mandela said, you judge a society by how it treats its worst members. Is there equality? Of course not. After all, in real life there isn’t. One works, another studies, others mess about. You can’t force anybody to study, which is why teachers have such a difficult task.”

Parodi leans over a slice of cake. He inhales it like a barbarian.

“The prisoners are neither demons nor saints. They’re human beings, a bit good, a bit bad. Our behaviour is influenced by things including whether somebody’s ever taken delight in us, or noticed us at all. Our chances of development can be affected by where we lived, how society treated us. I believe the state has a moral and ethical obligation to ensure prisoners the ability to meet all their needs: educational, cultural, professional, political and sexual. Because up until now, they’ve suffered defeat. Prison should be the payment of a debt to them. The punishment has already happened; they’re deprived of their freedom. What more, am I supposed to beat them? Let them rot? Now we have to make them noble. Because it’s in my interest for them to stop stealing, stop killing, and not come back here, right?”

The director’s convictions are like something from a different continent. He has an approach like the Scandinavians, who enjoy the world’s lowest recidivism rates. But the conditions he works in are Latin American. The inconsistency is striking. Next to Punta de Rieles, another prison for 2000 people has just been built – modern, but organized according to the classic paradigm. Since the beginning of 2018, one prisoner has died, another has hanged himself, there have also been several brawls. “Why did they do it? Because not everyone in Uruguay shares the conviction that these people, the prisoners, are equal to them.”

It doesn’t surprise me that for the prisoners, Parodi is an authority. Even when they leave, they drop in to confide in him, they call for his birthday, and send holiday greeting cards. As they leave, he tells each of them: “Call me before you think of stealing something.”

“We’re grateful”

A Friday afternoon is drawing to a close; the operators slowly leave the prison, and the prisoners take out their candombe drums, to coax out of them traditional Uruguayan sounds. They sit on folding chairs. The laundry flutters in the breeze.

I drop in on Wilson and his fibreglass plant, which looks like a home garage. He specializes in making kayaks for the national team to train with. He’s been in for nine years. He was sentenced to 20 years for taking part in an armed assault and murder. Both times, he drove the car – on the street he was a mechanic.

“You know, Maria, for nine years, when I lie down in my bed, I look at the ceiling and wonder when I stepped onto the bad path. I worked as a driver, a locksmith. I wasn’t rich, but it was enough. I wanted adventure. And it cost me a lot. But I think that maybe if I hadn’t ended up here, I would have been involved in another robbery, and died in a shootout with the police. It sounds strange, but somehow I’m grateful for this experience. I’ve learned a lot here.”

I ask Wilson what freedom means for him. “It’s going to the market with my wife on Saturdays, then we have an asado, a grill. Giving my kids breakfast on Sundays. And then going to the beach.”


Translated by Nathaniel Espino

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Maria Hawranek

is an independent reporter, born in 1987. She works alongside Szymon Opryszek, with whom she published the books “Tańczymy już tylko w Zaduszki” [We Only Dance on All Soul’s Day Now] (2016) and “Wyhoduj sobie wolność. Reportaże z Urugwaju” [Grow Yourself Some Freedom: Reportage from Uruguay] (2018). A lover of Latin America and life in the countryside.