Argentine cooperative provides new lease on life for former inmates
A former inmate and member of the Argentine cooperative Esquina Libertad (Freedom Corner), Daniel Fernandez, is interviewed by EFE on May 14, 2019, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. EPA-EFE/Cristina Terceiro
A view of the site of the "Anti-imperialist Grandstand" in Havana, Cuba, on 23 May 2019. EFE-EPA/ Ernesto Mastrascusa
Buenos Aires, May 23 (efe-epa).- An Argentine cooperative launched in 2010 by inmates, ex-prisoners and their family members aims to provide work opportunities to people who have served time in penitentiaries and promote their social reinsertion.
"We started off making little notebooks from pieces of jeans that no one was using and recycled paper," the president of the Esquina Libertad (Freedom Corner) cooperative, Eyelen Stroker, told EFE, adding that the cooperative now also runs a publishing house, a print shop and a training center.
The genesis of the initiative was the "lack of a government presence" in providing support to people when they leave prison, she said.
The cooperative reaches out to inmates while they are still behind bars and provides them tools so that the employment issue does not become "yet another problem added to their list of things to resolve," Stroker said.
She said she decided to head up this project in part because Argentine law does not allow former inmates to sit on the board of a cooperative for 10 years after they have completed their prison sentence.
But she also took on this role because after her husband ended up behind bars she became aware that family members also endure a type of prison and the stigma associated with it.
The cooperative mainly operates in the only prison in the city of Buenos Aires, Devoto, a badly overcrowded facility whose population has tripled in recent years.
She says those problems also have made her organization's work much more complicated.
According to figures from the National Prison Ombudsman's Office, the country's prison population continued to rise in 2018, worsening an overcrowding problem and prompting the declaration of a three-year state of emergency at federal penitentiaries.
Nearly 40 percent of inmates become repeat offenders, a pressing problem that Stroker says the organization is successfully addressing.
"Those linked to our project have a 95 percent non-recidivism rate," she said.
Education makes all the difference in this process, making the recidivism rate three times lower. The teaching function is at the heart of the cooperative, which was launched under the umbrella of a University of Buenos Aires prison-education program.
Daniel Fernandez, who spent his adolescence at different youth-detention centers, said a workshop on literature and philosophy changed his life.
When he regained his freedom, he said he decided to get involved with the cooperative and started teaching workshops to help other youth with similarly troubled pasts.
Now 25, he said that having been in the prison system and gaining an understanding of the problems from the inside makes him better able to convey certain knowledge.
He also composes rap songs whose socially conscious lyrics enable him to communicate with young people.
"I feel like we're doing a job that the government isn't doing and that those of us who had fallen into problems we don't want to return to are taking on this responsibility," Fernandez told EFE.
He insisted on the importance of "making people understand that they have opportunities and spaces where they can achieve their potential."
Fernandez said he is aware that having a criminal record "closes doors to you on many sides" in Argentina, a country that is currently mired in recession with an unemployment rate that is nearly in double digits.
But he stressed the need to "fight to create sources of work so you don't fall back into that cycle" that led to prison in the first place.
Mauro, who has been behind bars for 11 years and preferred not to give his last name to avoid problems, coordinates two workshops from Devoto's Pavilion 50 and serves as a link between his fellow inmates and the cooperative.
He said that learning about Esquina Libertad and getting involved with the cooperative has provided him with a "ray of hope" and shown him that "you can do things well, improve and get out" with the help of his peers.