The penal system does not work; criminals that do jail time do not reform. We’ve heard these arguments in Mexico before—and for the most part, they seem to be true.
Stories abound of drug lords continuing to run their operations from within their cells by using unauthorized mobile phones, and of youth that are imprisoned for minor crimes, only to turn into full-blown criminals once they enter the penal system.
However, one case in Baja California sheds a beacon of light that could be a sign of better things to come in the Mexican penitentiary system.
Pedro Antonio Gerardo Acosta is a 29-year-old inmate in the El Hongo jail near the city of Tecate in Baja California, serving a 20-year sentence for kidnapping. This convicted criminal also recently obtained the highest score in the country on the national academic test for higher education (public and private), administered by the Centro Nacional de Evaluación para la Educación Superior A.C. (National Evaluation Center for Higher Education—CENEVAL).
Gerardo Acosta is one of the first inmates to graduate from a pilot program run by the Baja California State Penitentiary and the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC), which allows people serving a sentence in El Hongo to receive higher education while incarcerated. Along with Gerardo Acosta’s amazing achievement, two of his inmate classmates also received special recognition for outstanding academic performance in 2013.
Rosaura Barahona, renown editorialist for El Norte newspaper, commented that El Hongo’s educational program is part of a number of changes in the state’s penal system, which is migrating away from a “lock them up and throw away the key” strategy toward a transformative strategy of rehabilitation-and-reinsertion.
“Educating someone is never a waste of time” said Barahona, noting that Gerardo Acosta earned his degree despite having eleven more years to serve behind bars.
Felipe Cuamea Velázquez, Dean of the UABC, agrees with Barahona and congratulated Gerardo Acosta for this achievement. “It represents a great step in his life and an important tool towards his reinsertion into society,” said Cuamea Velázquez.
Of course, the educational program will never be bulletproof, and there is no evidence to say that someone who goes through it will never commit a crime in the future—but there is no arguing against the fact that it is better than the alternative of doing nothing.
Moreover, the three students’ success is proof of the seriousness with which the state penitentiary is taking this program seriously. It is not a PR ploy for authorities to boast that they are trying to reinsert convicts into society, but is actually a legitimate project that provides access to top-level education to people who never had it before.
The way I see it, a person who is in jail but who is studying hard enough to receive better scores than non-criminals is also an inmate who is staying away from trouble; someone looking to better himself because he wants a different life after he serves his sentence.
Baja California’s El Hongo is the first state penitentiary to initiate a program like the one with the UABC—and although it has only graduated ten students thus far, imagine the possibilities if this program were to be implemented at a national scale.
What if a young guy who committed a minor crime served his sentence—and instead of having learned to be a more effective gang-banger, he came out a university graduate?