Sonia Patricia Cabrera Petricioli

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Sonia Patricia Cabrera Petricioli's work was prepared when Sonia Patricia Cabrera Petricioli was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1989 .

Introduction

Patricia Cabrera is working on a model to give personal and legal support to good-risk, first-incarceration prisoners and their families, to ensure early release and effective reintegration into post-prison life.

The New Idea

Working with a poor slum community in Mexico City, Patricia saw how much damage the prisons were doing, wrecking lives and badly hurting families. She consequently set out to reform the system.

This is not an easy goal. The prisons are neither used to nor warmly open to such help, least of all from an unknown woman. She consequently decided to focus first on the very large number of those in jail for the first time-almost always poor people imprisoned pending trial. She focused further on those among them presenting the least risk-men and women generally without prior criminal records who are not addicted to drugs or alcohol and who do have families. She feels that these are the cases where she can make the most difference. This is where the prison system is most likely to relent. More important, by intervening quickly she can limit the damage jail does to a person and increase the probability of his or her successful reintegration with their family and into non-criminal life. These successes in turn should lend credibility to subsequent, harder reforms she'd like to launch, e.g., in the public prosecutors' offices.

Patricia is hard at work developing a systematic approach to identifying and screening those first-incarceration cases where early release will work, winning their release, laying the groundwork in their home community for acceptance and successful reintegration, and ensuring sufficient follow-up to help them re-enter and to ensure they meet their parole requirements. Doing so has required her to master all the complexities of the current system, formal and informal. As she does so, she's developing not only new tools she can add to her evolving model of how to win and manage early prisoner release, but also building an agenda for future reforms. If, of the 12 public prosecutors serving courts that feed the jail where her initial work is focused (professionals who should in theory be doing some of her work), only two are useful allies, how can she most effectively jar this potential resource into action? What pressures and incentives will work within the current framework? How might the governor or the legislature most usefully charge the framework?

As she progresses, Patricia has also been developing a growing list of policy or legislative reforms she feels are important. For example, there is a statute that bars parole for anyone who has damaged government property-regardless of the value of the property or of how the damage occurred. She wants it repealed. To pursue this work Patricia set up the Fundacion de Reintegracion Social del Estado de Mexico (the Foundation of Social Reintegration of the State of Mexico) and is working initially with prisoners from the jail at Barrientos. The foundation is unique in providing an early release service for prisoners. The only other organizations in the field are a Mexico City organization dealing principally with the problem of single mothers in jails and the Church-based Pastoral Penitenciario, offering traditional charity work.

Patricia has already had a number of notable successes. In only one year of operation, she has set up an effective multidisciplinary team in which members, be they lawyer, social worker, or health promotor is able to handle all steps required to process a case-thus avoiding cold, impersonal specialists. She talks with justifiable satisfaction of the results so far: in less than a year of start-up work, 70 prisoners have been freed. The foundation is giving post-liberation attention to 46 of these 70 people. It is currently reviewing 218 other cases.

The Problem

According to official figures, in 1980, 74.2 percent of prisoners in Mexican jails were offenders awaiting sentence. Patricia's own research in Barrientos prison puts the figure even higher. There, 83 percent are awaiting trial and only 17 percent have been sentenced. Often these people have to wait for up to two years for their sentence, or they may be pardoned or given sentences for shorter than the period they have already spent in jail. Either way they are already marked by the period spent in jail, and may embark on or continue on a path of crime-as a result of experiences and contacts made in jail.

Mexican jails are severely overcrowded, often filled to double capacity. Taking just the case of Barrientos prison where Patricia is working, cells meant for four or five prisoners are being occupied by 20 to 30. This leads to unsanitary conditions, physical, sexual, and psychological violence, and the emergence of a prison sub-culture to determine the distribution of limited benefits. In these conditions, Patricia observes, the most violent and aggressive prisoners fare best. Those who suffer the most are first offenders, who, if they are not released quickly, may be pulled into the truly criminal career paths of the experienced, dominant cell mates. They absorb the attitudes and learn the skills and lore of the trade in the intense, 24- hour tutorials that life in these cell subcultures provides. The tutorials' attraction grows, moreover, in direct proportion to the degree to which the new inmate fears his lengthening jail record will close whatever other doors might have once been open to him.

The damage is further aggravated by the fact that the humiliating and violent conditions of Mexican prisons fall chiefly on prisoners who come from extremely poor backgrounds. They cannot afford a lawyer of their own. They cannot pay the many bribes and extortions that officials and "coyotes" demand either to improve their conditions within the prison or to ensure a speedier legal process.

The Strategy

Patricia is systematically developing a practical model that others will want to apply to other jails and aspects of the country's notorious prison system. She's doing so empirically, moving from the specific to the more general. At each step, she's maintaining extensive and scrupulous records of what she has found and of her team's experience case by case.

She and her team care for each person and family they're helping; their thorough-going focus on the detail of each case flows naturally. It's a useful focus. First, it forces them to pursue every aspect of the case, which in turn forces them to see the whole system they're dealing with. One of the prison system's chief problems is that it is disjointed: each part does what makes most sense for it, commonly with imperfect knowledge of what the other parts are doing or need-let alone the incentive to come together to provide the prisoner with integrated service. Even before one factors in base incentives, it is a series of bureaucratic components, certainly not a "machine".

Patricia recognizes that one of the dangers any reform approach faces is being drawn into the same divisive inability to deal with (a) each prisoner as a complete person and (b) his or her case as one process. That means that her model has professional responsibility for all aspects of each case they take up. It also means that she must eventually organize her service to cover each of the 18 prisons in the state and their feeder institutions. Otherwise she won't have the ability, e.g., to handle a man from one part of the state imprisoned in another. She plans to establish or encourage others to establish sister service/reform organizations in the other prisons now that her model approach is crystallizing, producing results, and winning acceptance even among prison officials.

Even as she's increasingly thinking about spreading her work, Patricia is steadily developing her methodology. The functioning of the courts responsible for reviewing cases and determining jail sentences was disappointing, so Patricia has created an independent body monitoring the defense carried out in the six courts corresponding to Barrientos prison. They meticulously revise the case of every prisoner, consult with specialist criminal lawyers, and coordinate with the official defenders to put pressure on the courts to apply the law correctly and speedily. Finding affordable bail for program participants was a problem. Patricia developed a special revolving fund-and has been able to assure prompt, reliable repayments.

She has increasingly been exploring ways to provide more support for the growing number of prisoners she has helped release. She's increasing the number of post-liberation visits to the prisoner and his family, offering much-needed psychological, moral, and practical support. Recently she brought together all the inmates for whom she had secured early release for a meal; the success of this experiment has led her to propose other gatherings of ex-inmates as a support group activity in the post-liberation phase.

Patricia's understanding of the systemic causes of the troubled condition of Mexico's prisons is also growing. As it does, she and her colleagues are increasingly interested in pressing the authorities and society for legal reforms. Such changes could significantly reduce the now overwhelming demand for her case by case help. Patricia cites one example: if they could change only one clause in the code, and make it obligatory for witnesses to attend trials when requested, the prison population could be halved overnight, since over 50 percent of those in prison are there awaiting trials that never materialize owing to the non-presentation of witnesses.

As her work takes hold, others are beginning to look to her. Recently the state of Mexico asked Patricia's foundation to submit proposals for the reform of the state's laws.

The Person

Patricia is a sociologist trained at the Metropolitan University in Mexico City. Although she initially worked as a professor, she became increasingly involved with youth problems and began working in poor neighborhoods of Mexico City, helping set up small businesses for young people. At the same time, motivated by her deeply felt Christian ideals, she began visiting prisons to help inmates and their families. This experience led her to propose a new way of dealing with the enormous problems posed by Mexico's prison system and to the creation in 1989 of the Foundation for Social Reintegration.