It’s a Wednesday morning, and a group of around 70 incarcerated women are gathered in front of Zoom screens. They’re divided between six classrooms from prison facilities in three Mexican states: Estado de Mexico, Guanajuato and Nuevo León. They wear blue or tan uniforms and sit in rows, some squeezed together and others spaced apart. Those in the first rows dutifully scribble in notebooks they balance on their laps or small tables.
The women are students in a carceral “video academy,” the first of its kind in Mexico. The program is the brainchild of Fundación Plan B, and its founder and director Tatiana Ortiz Monasterio. Its modus operandi is simple, but powerful. Community members from around the country can donate one hour of their time, via Zoom, to teach a class to incarcerated women. The students, in turn, gain skills, as well as one of the most in-demand and hardest-to-come-by commodities in prison: something productive to do.
“We need to turn prisons into real centers of learning,” said Ortiz Monasterio, who explained that the “Dona una hora” program (“Donate an hour” in Spanish) offers courses in topics including entrepreneurship and business plans, agriculture, manual arts like embroidery or book binding, nail art and hair styling, mindfulness and meditation, as well as physical education. The program started as a one-month trial in a single prison, spurred forward by the pandemic, and has since expanded into six facilities, offering two one-hour sessions five days a week.
The program recognizes the systemic challenges that make it extremely difficult for a formerly incarcerated woman to find work and stable housing upon release. Thus, “the idea is that they leave prison, and day one they have something they can sell,” Ortiz Monasterio said.
In the days following International Women’s Day, it’s critical to consider incarceration in our global conversation about gender justice. How do our carceral systems neglect—and often actively harm—women, and what are the resulting individual and community effects? What programs, projects and policies might counter those effects?
For context, there are over 200,000 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons in Mexico, and around 11,000 of them are women. In the U.S., by contrast, as of 2019 there were 1.5 million people in federal and state prisons, and around 115,000 were women. While the dynamics of criminalization and incarceration that shape the U.S. are certainly different from those that shape Mexico, a fundamental truth underlies both criminal justice systems: When those systems fail women, they fail entire communities. The more activists and policymakers on both sides of the border share ideas, the better chance both countries have for a more just tomorrow.
To start, a gender-based approach to understanding and policymaking around incarceration is crucial. Such an approach allows us, first, to understand who is in prison and why they are there; second, to understand their specific needs and aspirations; and third, to translate those needs to public policymaking, explained Nancy Carmona, a public policy coordinator at the feminist justice organization EQUIS Justicia para las Mujeres.
One area with much policymaking work left to be done is educational and work training programs, which, evidence shows, reduce recidivism. International standards establish that it’s a state’s responsibility to provide incarcerated people with such programs—and more generally, treatment based in human dignity. Similarly, in Mexico, carceral authorities are legally obligated to provide access to education and work programs, under the policy paradigm of “social reintegration.”
But in practice, the programs that are actually available to women in carceral systems around the world depend a lot on the luck of the draw. In many cases, Carmona pointed out, the institutional offering “does not respond to the demand of all the incarcerated people who want to participate in educational programs.” It’s often up to civil society, universities, formerly incarcerated people and the family members of those incarcerated to step up to fill the gaps.
In an ideal world, non-government institutions could complement existing government programs, but they shouldn’t be responsible for making sure such programs exist in the first place. And again, these programs should be developed with women’s particular needs and desires in mind.
For example, in its policy papers on the topic, EQUIS highlights the need to ensure that work training and educational programs don’t replicate and amplify existing gender stereotypes. (In other words, incarcerated women shouldn’t just have access to programs focused on handicrafts or cooking—what about carpentry and plumbing? What about higher education?) Carmona also pointed out that it’s critical to link programs inside prisons with opportunities to work or continue studying upon release
Back on the Zoom, in the class Ortiz Monasterio and Fundación Plan B allowed me to observe, the incarcerated women listen attentively to a class called “Transformation,” taught by a psychotherapist specialized in anxiety. They start with a guided mindfulness meditation: Close your eyes. Imagine a stressful situation; put your hands on your heart. Imagine someone you care about is comforting you. Breathe. “Just let things be.”
The women finish the meditation and turn to last week’s homework—to look in the mirror and focus on all the aspects of themselves that they like. A student, likely in her thirties, approaches the computer and unmutes the mic. She talks about how a lifetime of emotionally abusive relationships with men had warped her vision of herself. But this week, when she looked in the mirror, she saw her smile, her curly hair, her big eyes. She liked what she saw.
As the class continues, the women dig into the limiting beliefs they have about themselves and the world. They practice changing “I want” statements into “I can” statements.
As I watched the class, I couldn’t help but wonder, cynically, whether its focus on personal empowerment was lopsided, given the gargantuan systemic injustices that paved the women’s path to prison and awaited them at its exit.
But the students themselves loved the class. Each time they approached the computer to answer the instructor’s questions, they started by effusively thanking her and Fundación Plan B for, in one woman’s words, helping them feel as though “we are here for a reason, not just to drown.” For the women, the class was true to its name: “transformative.”
Both things can be true. To fix our criminal justice systems, we need deep, systemic changes inside and outside prisons. We also need targeted programs and resources that work within broken systems to meet women where they are, right now. To bring a little light into a place that’s mostly dark.
Toward the end of the class, an incarcerated woman around 50 approaches the Zoom camera, notebook in hand, hair neatly braided down the middle of her head. The meditation, for her, had been cleansing. She had felt tears slip down her cheeks. A release.
“I just have to come here to breathe,” she says. “And do the homework.”