Faced with a fraught penal system which impedes efforts to punish criminals, Mexican authorities are looking to a New Mexico prison as a model for how to improve the nation’s penitentiaries.

As the magazine M Semanal recently reported, the New Mexico Penitentiary, which houses an average of 790 inmates a few miles south of Santa Fe, has turned into a model for the changes Mexican authorities are attempting to orchestrate in their own prison system.

According to reporter Victor Hugo Michel:

It’s the model prison of the US, which through the Merida Initiative is today the subject of detailed study by the Mexican government, so as to understand how a jail can, in effect, switch from being a rotten cesspool to a world-class facility in a generation, especially given the crisis in the Mexican penitentiary system and the urgent need for results.

The New Mexico facility was once an example of everything wrong with the US prison system. In 1980, it was the site of one of the worst prison riots in US history, when inmates took over the prison for two days and held several prison staffers hostage. Thirty-three inmates were killed and more than 200 injured in the incident.

While the dozens of dead provoked a wave of government attention and a redoubled effort to improve the state of the prison, eight years later, the New Mexico Penitentiary once again earned headlines, this time for an prisoner escape conducted via helicopter, which landed in a prison courtyard and stole off with a small number of inmates.

Such incidents are all too common in Mexican prisons. In particular, mass killings, whether through riots or through organized massacres, have occurred with far greater frequency over the last several years. The most recent such event was the February killing of 44 inmates in the Apodaca prison. This followed similar (though not quite as deadly) incidents in Juarez in 2011, Tijuana in 2008, Juarez in 2009, Gomez Palacio in 2009, Mazatlan in 2010, and Durango in 2010. Well over 100 inmates have died in all of these incidents.

Mass escapes are also quite frequent, especially in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas, where more than half of the nation’s jailbreaks occurred in 2010, including the escape of 140 inmates from a Nuevo Laredo prison that December. In at least one occasion — the flight of more than 50 alleged Zetas from a Zacatecas prison in 2009 — a helicopter was used to facilitate an escape.

It’s no wonder, then, that Mexico is looking to the revamped New Mexico prison as an example to follow. The New Mexico Pennitentiary is known for its division of different types of inmates, with six different classifications according to the danger presented by the individual prisoner. The most dangerous are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, and they are strictly segregated from the rest of the prison population. They also have almost no contact with the outside world.

On the other end of the spectrum, the well-behaved prisoners serving sentences for light crimes can spend much of their day outside of prison walls, either working or taking classes, returning to the facility each night. In doing so, not only do they better themselves, but they remain a part of the broader society even while doing time, which makes reintegration after the sentence is served far easier.

“We have presented this model to officials in the Mexican government and to various Central American countries, and they are very interested. We think this is one of the most progressive models in all of the US and it is worth analyzing”, said Colleen McCarney, director of classification in the New Mexico Department of Corrections.

This stands in stark contrast to the Mexican system, where overcrowding has led to mixing criminals convicted of or awaiting trial for petty crimes, and dangerous figures linked to the most powerful organized crime groups. As a result, the non-violent nuisance crooks develop links to the worst of the worst, and jails turn into what many call “finishing schools” for criminals.

The US prison system has served as a model for other parts of the world as well. In 2000, Colombia and the US signed the “Program for the Improvement of the Colombian Prison System”, which provided the Colombian government with financial and technical assistance from the US Bureau of Prisons (BoP) and the US Agency for International Development. The Valledupar and Combita facilities were built and organized with the cooperation of the BoP. Today, Combita, with a capacity to house 1,600 inmates, is used exclusively for members of the BACRIM, the “bandas criminales” responsible for much of the nation’s organized crime activities.

However, in at least one sense, the US is an inappropriate model for Mexico. The US has the largest prison population in the world, both in per capita and in absolute terms. (For instance, the US has 700,000 more prisoners than China, whose population is more than four times larger, and its rate of imprisonment is almost seven times that of England.) Not surprisingly, much of the US advice to other nations appears to be how to better imprison large numbers of people.

But in Mexico, where 40 percent of the prison population is awaiting trial, where a huge proportion are behind bars because they were unable to pay the small fine meted out as punishment, and where today’s prison system is at roughly 25 percent over its intended capacity, building more space for new criminals is only part of the equation. To address the prison crisis, Mexico’s criminal justice system also needs to drastically reduce the number of people who are liable to imprisonment.

If the Mexican system as a whole can follow the path carved by the New Mexico State Penitentiary, in a generation’s time, such gruesome and troubling events could turn from constant headline fodder into little more than a historical footnote.

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