Labor initiatives inside women’s prisons in Latin America aim to improve employment opportunities for female inmates, so as to reduce the rate of repeat offenses. However, beyond prison walls, they face difficulties in securing job opportunities for former inmates.
In Mexico, non-governmental organization La Cana provides weaving, embroidery, sewing, macramé and textiles to female inmates and they take responsibility for selling the products online, according to a recent report by Excelsior.
La Cana has set this model up successfully at four women’s prisons in and around Mexico City, with participants in 2020 reportedly gaining a 30 percent increase in their income, 95 percent using the revenue to help their families and 84 percent to meet basic needs in prison.
Such ideas have seen similar results across Latin America. In Colombia, the Internal Action Foundation (Fundación Acción Interna) has several projects, including the Interno restaurant in the San Diego prison in Cartagena, which has been considered as one of the most successful initiatives.
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In Bolivia and Paraguay, the CAF Development Bank of Latin America has developed projects to promote the creation of social businesses that operate both within and outside of prison walls. As of 2018, the project “Pan de libertad” (Bread of Freedom) in Bolivia, was working with 220 women.
In some cases, private businesses also conduct these projects. In Peru, the clothing line Carcel provides jobs for women in the Women’s Penitentiary Center in Cusco, and the brand Pietá works with two male prisons and one women’s prison.
According to several studies, most of the women in prisons in Latin America have little access to educational and employment opportunities, despite often being in prison for non–violent crimes, such as microtrafficking.
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These initiatives undoubtedly help to improve the conditions for women in detention centers in Latin America but these inmates still face a great challenge to find work when leaving prison.
According to the Washington Office on Latin American Affairs (WOLA), “once [the women] have served their sentences and are released, their criminal records make it harder to find a decent and legal job, which can perpetuate the vicious cycle of social exclusion and incarceration.”
Additionally, many of these initiatives focus on jobs that are traditionally considered to be “feminine” and that, in many cases, are poorly paid in the formal economy outside of the prisons. Despite improving the conditions within the prison walls, they fail to break the cycle of unemployment and economic vulnerability, therefore the likelihood of recidivism remains high.
But some steps are being taken in the right direction. In 2020, Colombia’s Internal Action Foundation pivoted to the challenges presented by COVID-19, creating an online education campaign for inmates, teaching valuable skills for reintegrating society, such as managing a business.
In Mexico, the Hola Code project has taught computer programming to migrants deported from the United States, many of whom spent time in custody before being repatriated. The program has received widespread acclaim and achieved an employability rate of 88 percent among its trainees. This model has also been replicated in several prisons around the country with promising results.