It’s been a whopping ten years since Prison Break burst onto the scene. These days, Orange is the New Black has us glued to our screens. While the prison ‘life’ has always seemed fascinating, these shows tend to sugarcoat it quite a bit.
These shows don’t portray the grim reality of prison life. From 22 hour lock-downs to weeks stuck in solitary confinement, prison is a lot more depressing than we imagine. TV also fails to highlight the ridiculously high rate of recidivism in many prisons. One study claims that over 75% of American prisoners are back in jail within five years of being released.
The United States has the record for having the largest prison population among all developed countries. Some blame the constantly changing drug laws and the enforcing of mandatory minimum prison sentences. Others blame the system that forces an ex-con to ‘see’ prison as a better and safer option than being out of jail.
Regardless of the reason, overcrowded prisons cost money to maintain. The turnover of the American prison system is more than the GDP of Uruguay, Panama and 131 other countries.
To reduce the rates of returning prisoners, many countries devise programs to help prisoners avoid lives of crime outside of jail. One country that seems to have perfected this is Norway. It has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world. When criminals serve their time and get out, they stay out.
By using ‘restorative justice’, Norwegian prisons focus on rehabilitation. A look at the Halden Prison will give you an idea why. Prisoners are allowed to learn trades from machine shops to customer service positions. With the focus on maintaining as much normalcy as possible, their living areas have their own kitchen, an Xbox and even a dartboard!
While some frown on this ‘luxury’, it seems to be working for Norway. While not every country can afford to treat prisoners like this, many of them are trying unique and odd methods of ‘rehabilitating’ inmates.
10. Gay Conversion Camps, Cuba
In the 1960s, at the height of the Cuban revolution, the Cuban government regularly rounded up citizens on a daily basis. Claiming they were checking the citizens personal ID cards, they really had much darker motives. All those who the government considered ‘unfit for the revolution‘, such as anyone who opposed the government, Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses, were all detained. They were also on the lookout for anyone that showed ‘deviant behavior’ i.e. gay men.
Under the ‘UMAP’ plan, thousands of gay men were arrested, held without charge and often without explanation. In labor camps surrounded by electrified barbed wire fences, these men were made to undergo years of hard labor, toiling in sugar cane fields, torture and death for those that fell ill.
Basically an equivalent of modern gay conversion camps, the prison had the motto/mantra: ‘Prison will make you men‘.
9. Rapping Behind Bars in Carandiru
Until it’s demolition in 2002, Carandiru was the most crowded prison in Latin America. Terribly overcrowded, there was 1 guard for every 100 prisoners. Prisoners were made to ‘rent’ their own cells, bargain for any favors, get ‘married’ etc. In spite of all this, the prison had an informal and unique rehab program.
Carandiru was also known for being a ‘factory’ for rap bands. With no instruments available, inmates turned to beat-boxing and rapping to pass the time. Two of the rap groups formed behind these bars went on to get record contracts, appeared on TV talent shows and even talk shows. Though an informal program, it provided a structure for the inmates to channel their anger, aggression and frustration.
8. Infants in Prison at Bedford Hills
In the 1990’s, Mexico City decreed that it was better for children born in prison to stay with their mothers. While some debated on the effect of spending the early years in jail, others stood by the fact that the first few years of bonding are some of the most important in a child’s life.
Until the 1950s, prison nurseries were the norm in correctional facilities across America. Due to an increase in the number of women going to jail (a number that went up by 832%), the states couldn’t afford them anymore. These days, only 11 states still maintain their prison nurseries.
Statistically, moms who get to keep their babies are 23% less likely to wind up back in jail.
7. Prison Labor in Berrimah Prison
From stamping license plates and building furniture to digging Boston out of a snowstorm, prisoners in America have a wide range of jobs. Their ‘availability’ makes them a cheap and ‘willing’ workforce for many states.
In California, the prison system runs Conservation (or “Fire”) Camps, where inmates are called on to respond to assignments across the state. Construction, flood sandbagging; the most notable is the tackling of Cali’s rampant wildfires.
A similar program exists for young men in Australia, where they are ‘sentenced to a job’. Inmates work, receive a salary which is used to pay for their rooms and 5% of their salary is paid into an assistance fund for crime victims.
6. ‘Bike Power’ in Santa Rita do Sapucai
In Brazil, their prisoners are also put to work in ways you’d never imagine. At the Santa Rita do Sapucai Prison, near Sao Paulo, prisoners are helping Brazil become more eco-friendly.
An innovative program was introduced to help prisoners cut down on their sentences while doing some good for the community.
Stationary bikes were mounted and connected to portable batteries. As the inmates pedal, the motion charges batteries that power street lamps in the nearby town of Santa Rita do Sapucai. Inmates earn one day off their sentence for every 24 hour shift they spend on the bikes. The program helps prisoners lose weight while lighting up sections of the town that were once abandoned due to poor lighting.
5. Master’s degree program in Sing Sing
The Rehabilitation Through the Arts program was founded in 1998 to help inmates develop cognitive behavior and reduce recidivism. Consisting of year-round theater workshops taught by theater professionals, inmates are encouraged to put on plays for the staff and guests. In its years of operation, the RTA program has had a marked positive effect on inmates that are part of it.
The Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison was established to help inmates get a college education. Sing Sing makes it mandatory that inmates without a GED must obtain one if they spend time there. It’s also the only jail in New York to offer an Associate, Bachelor and Masters degree program.
4. Solitary at Pelican Bay
One of the oldest prisons still standing, the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania was designed to intimidate anyone put there. To make prisoners feel remorse, they were kept in complete solitude. Their cells were designed with one window to the sky. At night time, it was slid open, flooding the cell with moonlight. This ‘eye of God’ was supposed to lead the prisoners towards penitence.
With a typical day in the SHU consisting of 23 hours locked in a cell with one hour allotted to ‘recreation’, it’s no surprise that the SHU isn’t helping. A study on prison safety found that there are higher recidivism rates when prisoners are released directly from solitary to the community. Yet prisons like Pelican Bay, ADX Florence and San Quentin all still have the dreaded SHU.
3. Earn your Privileges at Wormwood Scrubs
In a bid to ‘enforce’ good behavior in their violent offenders, the UK government decreed that inmates must earn their right to privileges such as a gym membership, extra books and the TV. The UK prison system is regarded as being one of the ‘softest’ in the world, with some critics likening the conditions to “holiday camps”.
A survey by the Ministry of Justice found that 20% of the prisoners themselves don’t even believe they are paying for their crimes.
2. Hitting the Catwalk at Women’s Prison of Brasilia
The inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Centre in the Philippines are well known for their snazzy choreography and dance steps. As part of their rehab, they had to learn how to perform dance routines from “Thriller” and “Gangnam Style”.
The Women’s Prison of Brasilia holds an annual beauty pageant to crown the prettiest inmate. All the stops are pulled out to transform these women into divas: makeup, hair, nails; the whole works. At least for one day, they are not made to feel like inmates.
1. Tech Start-up in San Quentin Prison
Remember the education the prisoners in Sing Sing were getting? A program in San Quentin has taken it one step further.
Known as The Last Mile, it was introduced to help inmates understand how to use the Internet, learn about sound business principles, become entrepreneurs, develop business ideas and ultimately help themselves stay out of jail. Members of the program come up with ideas that they pitch to Silicon Valley investors, the press and mentors.
Designed to help these men learn real-world skills that can turn their lives around, the Last Mile has produced outstanding results. Alumni of its classes have landed lucrative jobs in tech and media startups.