The Belize Central Prison (BCP) is the only prison in the small Latin American Country of Belize. It is a distinctly low-tech operation, with the metal detector at the door being the only evidence one sees of the technological advances in security (I'm not sure it works, to be honest).
The gates are held shut by large padlocks; the Control Center has a large chalk board that keeps the inmate count, and the cells are of a classic Big House variety. The roughly 1400 inmates include remand inmates (who would be in a county or city jail in the U.S.), the women's unit, a youth facility, adult male inmates held at various levels of security, and six men and one juvenile being held as illegal immigrants. One out of every 214 Belizean citizens is incarcerated, a number in a league with the highest incarceration rates in the world.
But the BCP is different than most prisons, especially those in the U.S. It is run by a non-profit private foundation whose sole purpose is to provide "a secure humane facility geared towards meaningful rehabilitation and reintegration." The Kolbe Foundation took over the facility in 2002 and has made major changes attempting to achieve this very difficult goal.
There are now programs where once there were none, including farming programs, work programs, and a specialized youth facility. They have life skills programs geared towards the different populations and have worked hard to change a facility that was only known for its brutality and corruption.
Drug and alcohol rehab
The Ashcroft Rehabilitation Center, or ARC, the only drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in the country, is located inside the BCP, and it is here that Kolbe has put its biggest stamp on the prison system in Belize. ARC was built through a large donation from Lord Michael Ashcroft. It is a 90-day program that uses a mix of AA's 12-step approach with Christian scripture, focusing on how the seven "capital sins" lead down a path to destruction and how the 12 steps of AA and a higher power can lead one out.
According to the foundation, the program also teaches a cognitive behavioral treatment curriculum known as a New Direction, which is based on a collaboration of chemical dependency professionals from the Minnesota Department of Corrections and the Hazelden Foundation. These lessons include Intake Orientation, Criminal & Addictive Thinking, Drug & Alcohol Education, Socialization, Relapse Prevention, and Release & Reintegration1.
Using the idea born of the Alcoholics Anonymous program that only an addict can help another addict, the prison trains peer counselors (called facilitators) that have already graduated from the program to help guide the roughly 100 inmates (called interns) through the program at a time. In fact, the leader of the rehab program is a man who was one of its first graduates. The inmates sleep on mattresses on the floor and take part in meetings, group therapy sessions, and life skills programs.
Kolbe credits the rehab and better conditions for changes throughout the prison. The recidivism rate now stands at about 25 percent, which Deputy CEO Teheera Ahmad argues is significantly lower than when she came onboard in 2003. She also says that inmate-on-staff assaults are nearly unheard of (the last one took place in 2006) and inmate on inmate violence is down as well.
According to Ahmad, "most 600 inmates are directly involved in classroom tailored rehab programs. Another 300 inmates are working as a form of rehab: tailor shop, woodwork shop, agriculture, construction, and assistants. There is a new program geared towards the remanded population, who are inmates awaiting trial. It encompasses lifeskills and spiritual lessons as well as Narcotics Anonymous. We're still revamping the existing educational curriculum to include more lifeskills programs and vocations."
The programs seem to be showing early signs of success, although it is hard to document the changes in any real way, since the statistics kept before Kolbe took over are a mess. If nothing else, it is well documented in the prison literature that a busy inmate is a well-behaved inmate and it is in this regard where Kolbe can document a difference.
Setbacks on the road to reform
The BCP has not been without scandal. In November of 2007, the Deputy CEO, Oscar Puga, was fired for taking three inmates out of the facility. He was pulled over by police and had no explanation for why he had taken the three inmates out of the facility on a Saturday night.
Two of the inmates were on remand for murder and the other was serving a 25-years-to-life sentence for manslaughter. An investigation showed that Puga had been taking inmates out of the facility for some time and had been paid to do so. The former head of the ARC (and a former inmate in the facility) was involved in some troubling activities, including allegations of inmate abuse and drug dealing.
These are problems that Co-Chairman John Woods himself acknowledges, but feels that the trade-off is worth it. He feels that people who do not come into the job with pre-conceived notions of how a prison should be run can be more innovative and creative. Given what Kolbe has accomplished since 2002, in part due to the "hubris of ignorance," it might be a workable plan2.
Prisons in the U.S. have become more and more obsessed with professionalization while our prison population continues to grow exponentially, including a large part of that population under super-max conditions. The lack of professionalization has allowed Kolbe to implement programs that scholars have been recommending for years, such as inmate peer counselors, programming, and massive rehabilitations efforts. And they do this on $13 BZE per inmate per day from the government, the equivalent of $6.50 U.S. and limited funding from outside sources.
1. http://www.kolbe.bz/main/index.php?section=46 retrieved on February 20, 2009
2. Interview 1/3/09