In contrast to most of the region, Uruguay's government and at least one prison in Colombia are taking steps to provide more opportunities and rehabilitation to their prison populations in an effort to reduce recidivism rates and combat organized crime.
Uruguay's National Office for Former Convicts (Dirección Nacional de Apoyo al Liberado – DINALI), has agreed to create a foundation that will help former inmates find new jobs. The foundation will hire ex-convicts and put them to work in several projects, including dog grooming, car washes and the maintenance of police vehicles.
Meanwhile in Colombia, a minimum security agricultural penal colony located in the department of Meta has turned into a model for other prisons across the country. Stretching over 4,200 hectares, the Acacías prison provides its 1,273 inmates the opportunity to take part in several work and education programs. The strategy seems to have paid off. No one has escaped during the past 15 years, and the penitentiary's recidivism rates are the lowest in the country: only 2 percent of the former inmates have been captured for committing another crime once out of prison.
While both Uruguayan and Colombian authorities believe that the challenges to facilitate the inmates' reintegration into civilian life remain high, the programs can turn into a vital mechanism to reduce the influence of organized crime in the two countries.
InSight Crime Analysis
With their emphasis on rehabilitation and training, the programs developed in Colombia and Uruguay stand in contrast with the kind of treatment provided to inmates across Latin American prisons. The region's penitentiaries are suffering a severe crisis, in part due to repressive security measures and a lack of rehabilitation in jails.
The skyrocketing inmate populations and poor facilities have turned them into prime incubators for organized crime. Studies by InSight Crime illustrate how criminal groups use prisons to fortify themselves on the inside and the outside of jail, to recruit new members and to train them, and to expand their criminal portfolios.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons
Fortunately, other countries are also attempting to implement alternative measures. In Panama, President Juan Carlos Varela's administration implemented a program known as Secure Neighborhoods, ("Barrios Seguros"), designed to offer technical training to gang members. In 2015, El Salvador launched a program dubbed "Yo Cambio" (I Change), a combination of vocational training and building a culture of peace geared to reduce violence inside and outside prisons.
In order to work, however, these alternative schemes require near constant private-sector backing and participation. A 2011 government-funded gang truce in Belize, which provided job opportunities to an estimated 200 gang members, came to an end after funds ran out, leading to a spike in violence.