Prison industries--making mops at San Quintin. Bello, Colombia April 24, 2001.



Bello, Colombia April 24, 2001
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By US standards San Quintin is an old and ramshackle building. Some cells have bars as in traditional jails. Others look more like workers' barracks--plywood cubicles built by the prisoners themselves. But compared with dungeon-like jails filled to more than twice their capacity that I've visited in Haiti or El Salvador the atmosphere here is remarkably relaxed despite the overcrowding.

Almost all the prisoners here are men, but there are 8 female inmates in a women's wing. All prisoners wear their own clothes and move about freely within their area of the institution. There is a broom factory employing inmates, there are classes, and there is a radio program run by prisoners who receive journalism training and technical support from the University of Antioquia.

It is clear to me that the "developing democracy" here is far from perfect. It isn't easy for leaders accustomed to exercising power with firepower and fear to learn the ways of persuasion and negotiation. Whether the San Quintin process can transfer the developing spirit of "convivencia" in the jail to the complex world of Bello's streets in a lasting way remains to be seen. But the effort to do so is a courageous step.

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