The Uruguayan prison where inmates set up shop

By Frederick Bernas & Rayan Hindi
Punta de Rieles, Uruguay

Published
media captionBuns not guns: Inside the prison that breeds entrepreneurs

Every weekday morning, Cesar Campo wakes up, eats a quick breakfast and heads to work in a converted warehouse where he builds tables, chairs, bookcases and anything else that clients request.

Close by, his neighbours make bricks, grow vegetables and run shops such as cafes, a bakery, a barber's salon and a tattoo studio.

image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionCesar Campo is serving a lengthy sentence for bank robbery
image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionInmates grow vegetables which they sell to people outside the prison
image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionThe prison bakery started small but has been expanding ever since
image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionThere is often a queue at the barber's

All the workers are inmates living at Punta de Rieles, a progressive "open" prison just outside the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo.

"We never imagined we would have something like this," said Campo, 50, who has spent 23 years behind bars for bank robbery.

"It's a model prison which offers opportunities you don't find anywhere else."

Alternative approach

With incidents of prison violence recently hitting the headlines around Latin America - particularly in Brazil where more than 100 people died in January alone in a series of riots - the liberal philosophy behind Punta de Rieles offers an alternative view of how correctional institutions can be operated.

Read more

Its director, Luis Parodi, is a former schoolteacher who believes that "if the context changes, the man changes" and who runs his prison based on three fundamental elements: work, education and culture.

image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionLuis Parodi (right) was a school teacher before he became prison director

"We want to provide the best daily life possible, so prisoners can sleep peacefully and do not feel humiliated, scared or fearful," Mr Parodi told the BBC.

By creating a "village" which mimics the outside world as closely as conditions allow, he hopes to ease the rocky transition when prisoners return to freedom.

image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionInmates can move around freely inside the confines of the prison until 19:00
image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionThey are free to congregate with other inmates and visitors to share mate tea

Many of the 630 inmates at Punta de Rieles are approaching the end of their sentences.

With the national re-offending rate estimated at around 50%, Mr Parodi often tells departing prisoners to "call me before you think about stealing something", and gives out his personal phone number.

image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionUruguay's prisons are overcrowded but Mr Parodi does not want his inmates to feel humiliated

Uruguay's prison population has more than doubled since 2000. Prisons are currently 9% over their capacity.

In this nation of 3.4 million inhabitants, 10,416 people were serving custodial sentences in 2016.

In 2009, a UN Special Rapporteur expressed concern about the country's penitentiary system, describing "sub-human conditions" in which inmates at one prison were held "like animals in metal boxes" for nearly 24 hours per day.

Family connection

At Punta de Rieles, prisoners can circulate freely within the prison boundaries until 19:00.

Many use mobile phones to stay in touch with the outside world, and some are allowed tablets or computers.

image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionUnlike in other prisons, inmates are allowed to use mobile phones at Punta de Rieles

Inside the cells, which are typically shared between four people, they are allowed to have televisions, games consoles, refrigerators and musical instruments.

Families can visit three times per week, and overnight stays have been allowed since 2015.

image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionInmates are allowed to have their families visit them

In many cases, family members assist inmates who run businesses which sell their wares outside, like Cesar Campo's carpentry workshop.

Of 38 active "companies", 35 were started by prisoners themselves, and another is run by several former inmates who still return to work at the prison.

All business owners pay a small tax, which is used to provide micro-credit loans for inmates opening a new venture.

Successful start-ups are also registered with Uruguayan tax authorities, and Luis Parodi's latest initiative enables prisoners to open bank accounts from inside.

Guards who feel like sisters

Another of Mr Parodi's unconventional ideas was to create a security force comprised almost entirely of unarmed female guards.

image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionFemale guards patrol the prison but do not carry guns

"At first I was scared, but not for long," said Ines Marcos, who has been working at Punta de Rieles for three-and-a-half years. "I wouldn't say we're like their mothers, but we give the right advice, like a guide or a sister who helps them out."

Sport and cultural activities are offered to complement education programmes.

image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionInmates are encouraged to play sports
image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionOthers have taken up boxing

A colourful music studio in the main cell block rumbles with noise at all hours of the day as bands practise.

"Instead of staying inside, cutting your arms or building up rage against the police, we do something positive," said Santiago Garrido, 28, who plays in a rock group and teaches guitar to fellow inmates.

image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionThe inmates say playing music helps them turn their thoughts away from other things

"It's a way of channelling our energy. If we didn't do this, our heads would be thinking about other stuff," he added.

"The need to save ourselves is fundamental."

Garrido's group is currently working on an album that will be recorded at a studio outside the prison.

With members of a theatre workshop, he frequently performs at other penitentiaries and in public, including a show at the Uruguayan parliament last year.

Adriano Baraldo, 29, is an actor and singer who is serving a 19-year sentence for armed robbery.

"I recognise that I've done bad things," he says.

image copyrightFrederick Bernas
image captionAdrian Baraldo regrets not being there for his children

"I shouldn't have left my children [to grow up like] orphans."

"Prisons are the sewer of the capitalist system, but people can always learn to recycle themselves."

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