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The New Prison Model in the Dominican Republic: research on a unique prison reform process

The Dominican Republic is rapidly gaining international prominence for its remarkable achievements in building a new kind of prison system – with a focus on human rights and rehabilitation, not repression. Since 2003, the Dominican Republic has developed a “New Prison Management” model, which aims to apply international principles of human rights and the United Nations Mandela Rules (the 2015 Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners), as well as experiences from other countries, to the local Dominican context. This is an ongoing process of reform, which has expanded gradually but only covers part of the Dominican prison system. The older and the newer types of prisons co-exist in parallel – which is a unique setting for a research project. Over the past two years, through my doctoral dissertation project, I have been studying the Dominican prison reform experience, with a focus on the views of people who are incarcerated.

The Dominican New Prison Management Model began as a pilot in one facility in 2004 and has since expanded gradually over fifteen years. Through a combination of renovating older facilities (usually a police or military barrack) and new buildings, the Dominican government has established 22 Centers for Correction and Rehabilitation (CCRs). In stark contrast to the unreformed prisons, the CCRs operate with a mandate to avoid overcrowding; they do not accept people beyond their bed capacity. In addition to large-scale closed prisons with a mix of medium- and maximum-security areas, these CCRs also include a house for women in semi-open sentence phases who work or study in the local community and a facility composed of small cabins for sentenced men over 50 years old. In all of the CCRs, programs are extensive, including education, vocational training, arts and music activities, and therapeutic communities. After 15 years of gradual development and expansion, the CCRs under the New Model now hold about a third of the country’s incarcerated population, while the other two-thirds reside in traditional prisons.

Another key feature of the New Prison Management Model is the personnel: a civilian correctional officer corps known as Penitentiary Treatment Officers or VTPs (agentes de vigilancia y tratamiento penitenciario). Trained at a National Academy of Penitentiary Administration in correctional practice and human rights principles, as well as specialized tasks ranging from high-risk security guards to contract administration, these officers serve in most positions at CCR facilities and at headquarters. Certain roles, such as attorneys, doctors, psychologists, and teachers, are typically non-VTP professionals, although increasingly VTP officers are obtaining training and credentials in these specialties, too. There is a debate about what proportion of non-security roles should be filled by VTP officers with such credentials versus professionals from the local community who do not have correctional officer or security backgrounds. Meanwhile, in the traditional prisons, police and military officers continue to manage security roles, but the government is also expanding programs and other services run by civilian professionals. These include a country-wide literacy initiative, vocational training courses, campaigns to address transmissible diseases, and a brand-new mental health center, with counselling staff, at the country’s largest prison.

In my research project, which I developed in collaboration with government authorities who oversee both the traditional and new model prisons, I visited more than twenty prisons across the country over about a year. I observed daily activities and held focus groups and interviews with incarcerated people and staff. Building on the initial themes I found in this process, I developed a survey about incarcerated people’s experiences, based on the Measuring the Quality of Prison Life framework and survey instrument from Cambridge University (Liebling, 2004). With a team of students, we collected more than 1,200 responses to the survey, from people in 17 prisons (both old and new). I also interviewed formerly incarcerated people, civil society organizations, government officials, and other stakeholders. Some of my questions asked about people’s trajectories in the justice system and their objective living conditions, and some sought to understand more subjective aspects of their lives, in particular their sense of autonomy, safety, justice, respect, fairness, personal development, social interactions, and dignity (in line with the MQPL principles). Since major prison reforms, especially those that involve significant infrastructure investments, are often measured by narrow indicators such as cell space, number of program hours, and eventual crime or recidivism rates, it is important to build a more holistic picture of incarcerated people’s daily experiences and what changes they consider important to their well-being.

My findings show that the material conditions in CCRs are more equitable. For example, most people in CCRs have a bed to themselves (and the gap is due mainly to one facility that is still in-transition to CCR conditions), compared to less than 30% of people in traditional prisons. The majority in traditional prisons sleep on the floor due to overcrowding, though some have private cell spaces. Education is more widely available in CCRs, with over two thirds of CCR residents participating in some type of education program, including about 5% of CCR residents attending university classes (inside facilities or on day release). Similarly, CCR residents have three daily collective meals provided by the facility; these are modest in quantity and content, and buying extra food in the commissary is expensive. In traditional prisons, people with few economic resources typically eat the meals provided, but those who can afford it buy ingredients from outside and cook their own food. This access to more diverse food options is important to some people, although it is of course not available to all.

People in CCR facilities also emphasized that the formal programming is very important for their parole applications, whereas programs run by other prisoners do not necessarily have this documentation – even some that make the most difference, such as therapeutic support groups. In the New Model, there is also access to medio libre, which is a semi-open regime in which people are granted day release for work or study outside the facility or weekend or holiday release to connect with their families. Due to the strict criteria for eligibility (e.g. stage of sentence, family support, documented good behavior), and limited institutional resources for supervision, only a modest proportion (about 7%) of CCR residents are currently participating in some form of medio libre. On the other hand, people who are incarcerated in traditional facilities have more communication and visits with their family members, apart from medio libre releases. This is because there is more access to phone calls, and visits are twice a week rather than once a week. Overall, the importance of family visits and presence, including children, is striking in both types of prisons; visits are more frequent, more relaxed, and with more amenities (such as play spaces, food, and celebrations) than in a typical North American facility.

On the more subjective aspects of prison life, there are both improvements and tensions in the transition between the traditional and the new model. Because the traditional model is less standardized in terms of daily routines and rules, people report that they have more sense of self-determination in certain dimensions of their lives. For example, they can initiate informal businesses more easily and have some more freedom of movement during out-of-cell hours within their sector. In the new model, there are vocational workshops (some of which permit participants to sell their products), but fewer casual income-earning opportunities. Another tradeoff relates to the social organization dynamics inside each facility or sector. In CCRs, VTP personnel are more present and directly engaged in daily activities and handling any disputes or infractions, whereas in the traditional facilities, prisoner delegates and councils take on some of these tasks (due to lack of personnel). In my study, many prisoners reported that they felt safer in the CCRs, as there are fewer disputes over scarce resources. But they emphasized too that the role of prisoner delegates in the traditional model provides a modicum of accountability, since other prisoners can participate and influence (to some extent) how rules are enforced. Taken together, these reflections illustrate that even as the New Prison Model generates clear improvements in the daily living conditions, the transition also can curtail some of the more informal social interactions of the old model that provide a sense of autonomy. Nonetheless, a majority of participants in my study expressed that the major reforms in the New Model are overall a positive change because amenities and benefits are more evenly distributed.

The Dominican prison reform experience provides important lessons for other countries in the region and for researchers and practitioners thinking about building more humane and rehabilitative prisons generally. First, it demonstrates that an ambitious reform process can generate sustained, expanding changes over many years, overcoming the typical stop-and-start of political cycles. Part of this is due to the leadership of key politicians and government leaders, as well as international partners, who built a vision based on the positive potential of incarcerated people to change and reintegrate; this generated a sense of possibility rather than crisis. Second, more formalization and equity in prison conditions and daily management is a crucial step, but it is important to retain or adapt some of the positive elements of incarcerated people’s more organic, self-organized initiatives, as well. Third, and perhaps most challenging, the Dominican experience reminds us that reforms that address only prison facilities and activities will only change part of the criminal justice system. Prison reforms do not exist in isolation from policing, courts, parole, and reentry. In the Dominican Republic, the total number of incarcerated people has doubled since 2003 – from 14,000 to about 26,000 – which is far out of step with changes in population growth rates and crime rates. This large increase in incarceration is due in part to excessive use of pretrial detention (more people entering) and in part to harsher sentencing and limited use of parole (fewer people leaving).

The New Prison Model depends on facilities that are well-staffed and not overcrowded. In early 2019, the Dominican government launched a next phase of the prison reform project: the Plan for the Humanization of the Prison System. It aims to eliminate overcrowding through expanding several existing CCRs and building two new CCRs (including one slated to hold 9,200 people), and it will expand the staffing models, protocols, and programs of the New Prison Model across the entire system in an integrated way. This marks an important investment in improving conditions and institutional coherence for all incarcerated people. However, it does not address the broader problem in the justice system: too many people are in prison overall, and too many people are held in pretrial detention. While improved facilities are clearly necessary, reducing the overall incarceration rate also requires major political will and changes in policy and practice. For example, to reduce pretrial detention, prosecutors and judges could use alternative measures (such as community supervision) much more widely, reserving detention only for exceptional cases that are real public safety risks. Similarly, much bolder use of parole and medio libre (semi-open or work/study release) could release people who have demonstrated positive change during their sentence. Fewer people in prison is a human rights goal for its own sake. It would also allow the innovative improvements of the New Model to run more smoothly and meaningfully, and could allow more investment in supports for people reentering communities after release.

I wish to acknowledge the IACFP’s support for my participation in the 2018 ICPA Graduate Student Symposium. I also would like to thank the Dominican government partners who supported this project and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation for supporting my research.

Author: Jennifer Peirce, PhD candidate, Criminal Justice, John Jay College & CUNY Graduate Center