Emiliano Blanco Argentina prisons

Argentina: improving the penitentiary system through the training of first line practitioners

// Interview: Emiliano Blanco

National Director of the Federal Penitentiary Service of Argentina

JT: When you took office, your main concern/objective was public safety, which you wanted to reach through lowering recidivism.
Which is the state of play of Argentina’s penitentiary system´s reality?

EB: In Latin America, we work with a social reintegration rationale, that is to say, this is set from a normative vision: everyone, under a given treatment, reaches a better readjustment, weighing, above all, variables that prioritise work and education. We lay the work on empiric evidence, and what we have done is to develop and apply a risk scheme recidivism reduction.

We have worked on the guidelines from a criminological point of view, with two clear management objectives: one being the public safety and the other the reduction of recidivism.

The first measure which we have advanced on with is our own initial risk classification system. That is to say, we work with our team to define the static variables (criminal backgrounds, motives to commit a crime, the severity of the offences ) and the dynamics of all the inmates, in a context where this kind of information on the static variables of the inmates did not exist, much less on the dynamic ones. A criminological research was done in which all the inmates of the system were interviewed for classification by risk.

This raised the need to re-categorise the penitentiary establishments from a security and insurance perspective: prevention of escapes, prevention of suicides and with the focus on potential for conflict.

At the same time, we also deal with a survey of all procedural security questions, both dynamic and physic, and we reappraise the categorisation concepts. Currently, we are in the phase of reassigning each establishment according to this classification, which implies the reallocation and development of programmes for specific treatment – for example, sexual aggressors or homicides.

Likewise, various programmes of approach for special needs groups, (like, among others, mothers with children, LGTB, elderly, young adults, and other), according to their needs and risks.

JT: Which are the main challenges that are put to the Argentinean penitentiary system at this moment?

EB: Like any penitentiary system in Latin America – and I would say worldwide, but above all in Latin America – we aren’t strangers to the exogenous and endogenous factors, as I always use to say, that mark the agenda.

To manage 60% of pre-trial/remand detainees is a challenge because it takes us to the prevalence of mere custody logic. From the inmate’s perspective, it makes it very difficult to work on the sense of integration in pursuit of the reduction of recidivism when the expectation of the prisoner is to come out successful of his trial and when the average length of the trial is two years.

Obviously, the overcrowding is something that sets the agenda day by day. Today we have an occupancy rate of 99%, which means working without an ideal functioning rate that would allow us to reduce violence and conflicts. Regretfully these questions do not depend purely on the penitentiary management.

I believe that our role, in this moment, is spent proposing and accompanying reforms of the criminal justice systems, in terms of alternative measures, or working integrally with the judicial power through the implementation of measures other than custody, being sentences coming directly from a communitarian base, which have even, in academic terms, resulted to be more effective in reducing recidivism. They exist, still in an initial stage, but we are taking the first steps.

The incarceration rate is growing and this is a problem for all administrations. Again, this always surrounds penitentiary administrations, it marks their agenda, but they are definitely not concrete or punctual challenges that the penitentiary system has by itself.

We need to start working with results, in terms of measuring the efficiency of our programmes, from the criminogenic items that we identify, be it risks or needs and we also need to start working articulately on the reduction of the real recidivism.

Currently, we use a purely normative concept in the measurement of recidivism, in other words, the judicial declaration of recidivism, in which the percentage tends to be less than the reality.

This is why we chose to work with a concept of reiterating, considering someone ¨a reiterant¨ when (s)he is condemned and later sued again or twice sued. It is definitely the most realistic measurement that the system has and it allows us to see the results that the society demands of us. And, of course, to prevent escapes and reduce violence.

JT: In the South-American penitentiary context, the Argentinean system is maybe one of the least overcrowded, although it is functioning on its limits, with obsolete infrastructure, deficits at various levels and even, in which cases of torture were found. (Source: El País, “Argentine prisons to the limit”, 5 October 2016).
How do you comment on this reality?

EB: The overpopulation, or working at the limit, is a factor that makes it very difficult. It hinders the classification of residents, the allocation of treatment programmes and also the control of other matters, all tasks that shape good management.

In Argentina we have various control organisms for torture and living conditions of our establishments: there’s the Penitentiary Procuration, the Government’s Procurator’s Office, each one of the judges and also many NGO’s.

So, if there is something that we do have is controls; I would say that we have at least thirteen control organisms and one management organism. They have free access to the units, the recommendations that are developed are worked on in coordination with them and any irregularity is, of course, judicially investigated.

The Penitentiary Service works with a rationale of internal monitoring and prevention. There are two specific areas for dealing with individual cases, the Monitoring Service and the Internal Affairs Division, where independent investigations exist and in the case of any irregularity, the administrative measures are taken according to each case, even dismissing the involved agents from the institution.

On the other hand, we have an internal area for the promotion of human rights that not only capacitates the personnel in this sense, but also responds to claims that are made through a direct free line for inmates or their family members.

We believe that it is important to work with the control organisms on a local level, and even with the international community, in defining which deficiencies are proper to the system, as much in infrastructure, capacitation of the agents and certain behaviours that, regretfully, in different prisons, tend to go normalised.

The solution is in the capacitation, effective communication and the application of simple objective protocols; and from there, the possibility that situations come up due to the system’s deficiencies start to change.

The same happens with corruption. If one thinks about the direct corruption, it is much easier to identify. In the penitentiary administration systems, the omissive form is often which brings situations that can shape acts of corruption.

We have worked with corruption risk maps in the units as well as with organisms and institutions. We have created a specific anticorruption service that works in the transversal prevention of situations that could arise from the favouring of corruption acts.

JT: What concrete actions are being taken and put into practice, under your leadership, in the Argentinean system and which are the priority objectives in this moment?

EB: We are developing a strong policy regarding the well-being of our staff; we try to have exclusive cabinets in each of the establishments where assistance at. We have detected many cases of work-related distress, burnout and we have specific teams working on these themes.

Another matter is the salaries; the comparison of penitentiary matters with the police is frequent and we have advanced a lot in this sense, giving value and juridical security to the penitentiary career.

And also, something which has given us much result, from my point of view, are the different protocols: requisition, visits and all the protocols that have a direct effect on the day-to-day of the prison. We have worked on the generation of truly useful documents for the penitentiary practice.

It is very common for administrations and even from directive positions to generate instruments that might be very good in a theoretical sense but that, then, are very difficult to apply into practice.

Our objective has been to invert this, looking to generate protocols that are objective and simple. The protocols are elaborated by those who operate the system daily and they’re based on the general guidelines given by the National Directorate.

I believe that this is a good practice for two reasons: in the first place because it generates the real listening of those who operate in the first line of the system, and in the second place so that the messages or guidelines reach their destination much faster.

The Service is a big vertical structure and this often makes that the communication does not have the desired effect; as much from the National Directorate to the agents as vice versa.

Improving the internal communication allows us to have a more realistic contact with what is happening, to let definite questions take shape, and that the best practices and ideas, aimed at improving the system, can come from the staff and can be implemented.

We have an occupancy rate of 99%, we work without an ideal functional coefficient that would allow to reduce violence and conflicts.

JT: Which are the main successes that you would like to point out?

EB: On a subjective level, I find it remarkable to see an independent impulse from the staff to work with the given plan: there is a real empowerment of the personnel.

I really believe it is an important achievement to receive constant proposals from the staff that are in line with the thinking scheme, to work with the criminological programmes, with empirical evidence and others.

Penitentiary administrations tend to work in a sectored manner, in groups, and now there is a lot of communication between the different areas and that generates a better result.

Then, in terms of objective results, escapes have diminished, we haven’t had any escapes in the federal system in the last years. Despite having the highest incarceration rate in the history of the Federal Penitentiary Service, we have had the lowest death rate. These, in my opinion, are two fundamental indicators.

Finally, we also have significant advances in the generation of empirical and statistic bases: subjective criteria were often used to formulate policies, but having statistical and information bases is fundamental.

JT: In Argentina, more than 50% of the inmates are On remand or pre-trial. We know that the topic of sanctions and alternative measures is not under the direction of the penitentiary system.
Is there any type of influence? Is there any joint work that is being done to make this system of community based measures progress or is the penitentiary system not involved in this?

EB: Organically the Federal Penitentiary Service depends on the Under-secretary of Penitentiary Affairs that, in turn, depends on the National Department for Social Readjustment.

Last year, the Ministry of Justice has issued a specific resolution for the work with electronic bracelets (electronic monitoring) in which it proposes – and this is a task that is done articulately – to work with especially vulnerable groups, or to say: women with children, elderly above 70 years, LGTB, etc.

So, certain groups that obviously have a special need and whom prison could make even more vulnerable, tend to be given certain priority. This is the government’s offer, at our Service we have worked in a structured and constant way and we are working with the Under-secretary and with the Department for Social Readjustment.

It still continues to be the judges, of course, who decide in a concrete case if domiciliary arrest under electronic monitoring applies, even as an alternative to pre-trial detention. Being a federal and provincial system, more and more jurisdictions consult about the functioning of the electronic bracelets; it’s an interesting tool which the Judicial Power is starting to see in a good light.

There are more and more jurisdictions that consult about the operation of the electronic bracelet... In Argentina, it starts to be an interesting tool that the Judiciary is starting to see with good eyes.

JT: The penitentiary system of England and Wales is a reference for Argentina. We know that many of the ideas that have been established in your country, and which are paradigms of the penitentiarism, were inspired on and adapted from the English system.
Could you please comment a bit more into detail on the foreign entities and experts that help and advise the Federal Penitentiary Service of Argentina? Who are they and what role do they play?

EB: In Latin America and in Argentina, the Critical Criminology current is very ingrained, which is based on the old idea of Martinson that “nothing works”, which has led to a very normative discussion about the criminological tasks and about what happens in prison.

Personally, I have an empirical-based vision, maybe more Anglo-Saxon.
The use of empiric evidence in the formulation of policies has shown to work better than any other logic.

We have taken the current known as “What Works” as our theoretic model, whose focus, on empiric results, allows adaptation to our reality, in many cases starting from our own research.

Another important reference is the “Risk – Need – Responsiveness” model, of Andrews and Bonta, from Canada. The system of initial classification has maybe been employed in the USA, England and Canada, or the northern European countries for more than 30 or 40 years, while we are only taking our first steps.

And, above all, to work with empiric evidence in criminological investigations, to study the system itself and that the decisions the penitentiary administrations take – or in my case as a decision-maker – diminish the risk of arbitrariness and are founded in criminological perspectives.

We know that resources in penitentiary administrations all over the world are scarce, the funds are insufficient, the needs are plenty and the responsibility that we have for each of the inmates is very high. Well, then we have to make the most efficient and effective decisions.

I think that working in another way is not possible. That is, from a global point of view, how we have adopted an applied criminological framework.
Punctually, we have worked with different systems such as the Canadian one and above all with the English one. Of the latter, their systems of classification and management have always generated the most interest; nowadays England is advancing in certain reforms. We are also working with England specifically on anticorruption guidelines.

We are also exchanging experiences regarding the moral functioning and we receive support to measure which is the true moral functioning and, from there, to generate effective policies to reduce violence and improve the day-to-day work of staff.

It is fundamental to take the best practices of those systems that have a successful track record and the empiric evidence to back them up and then apply them in our penitentiary system, considering our local characteristics. That means to apply the solutions for the penitentiary administrations but to adapt these to the local culture, which is done through research.

This also applies to the very design of prisons. One of the problems here in Argentina is that the latter two big built prison complexes have been based on North American and Spanish models. Nevertheless, the management of must take into account the characteristics of the local system, and the infrastructure we have generates some difficulties to do so.

We, for example, have a lot of contact visits. All the inmates have friends and family that visit them; that, compared to other systems, is totally different. The cultural view has to predominate in the design of a prison.
We have worked our own humble prison project, which we hope will be considered in the next developments.

Because we have deepened our exterior relations, we have attained help from different penitentiary systems of the world; having the constant advice from experts, as well as the support from the academy, is obviously a pleasure, but it also implies the responsibility to carry it forward with the best possible standards.

Fortunately, we have generated very good relations and we have the support of different systems: from Germany, Norway, Canada… We have even been given, for example, another vision regarding the psychological approach in penitentiary treatment. In Argentina, the psychoanalysis dominates, while the Anglo Saxon systems work more with cognitive-behavioural treatment, which seems like a more specific tool for the day-to-day in prison, with faster and measurable results.


Emiliano Blanco is a lawyer, specialised in Penal Law. He has been the national director of the Federal Penitentiary Service of Argentina since 2014 and he is also in charge of the Criminology Institute.

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