Crime & Justice

NGO equips Argentine inmates with work skills, promotes social reintegration

By Augusto Morel

Buenos Aires, Jul 1 (EFE).- Nearly 50,000 inmates are housed at penitentiaries in Buenos Aires province, or roughly half the total for all of Argentina.

But only 16 percent of the prison population in that region is enrolled in work reinsertion programs, a problem that one NGO makes it its mission to address.

Martin Martinez is 27 and has been moved around to different prisons for the past nine years. Currently housed at the Buenos Aires Penitentiary Service’s (SPB’s) Unit No. 9 in the city of La Plata, he is teaching other inmates to pick up the pieces of their lives and carve out a new path.

“This is a school/workshop. There are courses on operating (a computer), computer repair. And we train the students so they have tools for the future and can reinsert themselves in society,” Martinez told Efe.

The Argentine Justice Ministry’s latest annual report on the Buenos Aires prison population in 2020 indicated that young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 account for the largest share of inmates (40 percent).

Martinez was expelled from school at age 12 and abandoned by his mother, while his father had to work all day to put food on the table.

He was first jailed at age 18 and finished secondary school in prison, where he first began developing an interest in computer courses.

Around 41 percent of Buenos Aires province’s inmates had only completed primary school when they began serving their sentences, while 11 percent had finished secondary school and only 2 percent had obtained tertiary or university degrees.

The remaining inmates either had their schooling interrupted (36 percent) or did not have any type of formal education (10 percent).

“The tools are not readily at hand, and in prison it’s hard to have the chance to study due to a lack of spaces, although if you’re insistent you’ll get what you’re after,” Martinez said.

The SPB’s numbers indicate that of the 45,209 inmates in that prison system, only 7,236 receive some type of work training and just 15,200 are able to access different levels of schooling.

To help rectify this situation, “Maria de las Carceles,” an NGO headed by Adriana Von Kaull, has spent the past 29 years making weekly visits to six prisons in Buenos Aires province that have implemented its “virtuous cycle” philosophy for providing second opportunities to inmates.

Von Kaull’s program is sustained by donations, mainly from companies that provide computers and professionals that offer initial training to the inmates.

The idea is to create a snowball effect: the inmates continue learning on their own and also provide training to new prisoners who will take their place after they have completed their sentences.

Although the number of students dropped due to the pandemic protocols, at one point there were as many as 20 per penitentiary.

“They come away knowing how to operate and fix computers. Once the course is finished, we make donations to schools,” Von Kaull told Efe. Each computer is repaired, recycled and sent by “Maria de las Carceles” to public schools in low-income areas.

The “cycle” is complete when the inmate is released from custody. The president of the NGO then offers ex-prisoners the chance to work and study at its offices and continue helping other convicts until they become independent.

Von Kaull first became passionate about helping people behind bars at juvenile delinquent facilities, where as a catechist she sought, as she puts it, to “bring the word of God to the present day.”

“I met with street kids, but with projects (to complete). (Our prejudices tell us that) they’re special because they were on the street … but they’re normal kids,” she said.

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