By working with the Mexican Government, Daniela is creating a new legislative framework that guarantees basic working and social standards to inmates in prison and incentivizes companies to formally employ convicts. Moreover, Daniela combines dignified, well-paid labor opportunities and a personal development program to incarcerated women to improve their quality of life in prison and upon release.
The New Idea
Daniela Ancira has built a new legislative framework adapted to the reality of Mexican penitentiaries that provides basic working and social rights to Mexican inmates to improve their quality of life within jails, while contributing to a smoother reintegration into society. While being in jail, inmates need access to cash since basic hygiene and personal products are not guaranteed by the government. On the other hand, companies have been taking advantage of the vulnerable situation of inmates combined with the lack of framework on working standards in prison to employ them under the worst conditions, decreasing the possibility of social reintegration. Daniela has successfully proposed a special procedure to register inmates with the National Tax Administration Service, thus allowing them to be formally employed by any company, and, subsequently, to receive access to social and labor rights including minimum wages, access to paid leave, sick pay, retirement or maternity benefits, duration of the workday, the right to go to any public hospital in case of a disease the prison cannot attend to, and psychological support and cultural and athletic activities for every inmate. Moreover, the recent approval of a fiscal law that Daniela promoted offers an incentive for companies to employ inmates by allowing them to receive a tax deduction for formally employing incarcerated workers. This change entails that employing an inmate now costs companies the same as employing someone outside of prison. Therefore, it helps eradicate the problem of companies cheaply and informally employing inmates without guaranteeing basic labor rights.
While Daniela’s new framework on labor standards benefits inmates on a national scale, her own labor and personal development program has a focus on incarcerated women. Thanks to her direct work with inmates, Daniela has been able to propose and implement necessary changes in Mexican penitentiary labor legislation. Daniela teaches female inmates through crochet courses how to create high quality figurines, which she commercializes through her website and more than 20 sales shops. Daniela is professionalizing women in a new capacity, that is also known for its ability to reduce stress, while offering well-paid labor to inmates. To make a complete rehabilitation program, Daniela also offers psychological support, educational and cultural offerings, and professional skills-building resulting in greater self-esteem and wellbeing for the inmates. After release, La Cana’s support continues by helping women find a job in the labor market. Daniela also has plans underway to continue rehabilitation with psychological follow-up and activities for released women, as well as to expand the personal development program to male penitentiaries in the future, with carpentry as the labor focus.
As the Mexican government does not provide basic standards for convicts in prison, inmates, in addition to depriving their family of a source of income, incur additional costs since daily needs in prison must be paid for (hygienic products, food, laundry, warm water, clothing, medicine). The need for money is increased due to corruption in prisons, where guards can abuse their positions of power and ask for money from inmates for any reason (e.g. to mark their presence during the daily roll call). In order to not present a financial burden for their families and ensure their survival inside prison, a financial income is essential for inmates. To maintain themselves financially, 65% of incarcerated persons (45% of incarcerated women and 55% of incarcerated men) work on their own account or within the informal economy by producing crafts that they sell via their families or during visit days. These activities are not officially recognized by the penitentiaries, so the convicts must make arrangements with guards to be able to receive work materials from their families, which increases corruption and even prostitution rates in Mexican prisons.
Most of the incarcerated population in Mexico comes from the lowest social class and is unable to afford a lawyer; as a result, in 2016, 80% of convicts did not have a lawyer during their trial. In the same year, 32% of the population deprived of liberty did not know the reason they were being condemned. Even though women represent only 5% of the Mexican penitentiary population, they are more likely to be rejected and stigmatized by their families due to strong stereotypes in the still very sexist Mexican society. On average, 9 out of 10 women deprived from liberty do not receive visits or financial aid from their families, which leaves them in a more vulnerable situation than men, who are more frequently supported by relatives.
Before La Cana’s intervention, employing an inmate formally in a penitentiary was 30% more expensive than employing someone outside of prison. This explains why only 2.99% of the incarcerated population was employed formally within the prison, as well as the fact that most companies took advantage of the lack of basic labor standards to employ inmates informally under poor working conditions (low wages, long working hours, no access to social security), leaving convicts in an even more vulnerable situation and compromising their reintegration. Without social security in prison, inmates do not have access to free basic medical care and cannot contribute to their retirement fund. In 2016 a new National Law of Criminal Execution was adopted in Mexico that faced widespread problems with compliance. The law established a bare minimum of regulations, without specifically outlining how to guarantee and protect labor rights, particularly regarding the duration of the labor relationship; working conditions; access to insurance, benefits, and social security services; administration of the earnings or salaries of inmates; and mechanisms for participation of the private sector in generating employment.
To improve quality of life for inmates and to encourage successful reintegration into society and the labor market, Daniela has implemented a model consisting of two parts: 1) direct impact on inmates and 2) public policy changes, to improve prison conditions on both micro and national scales.
The first piece of Daniela’s strategy is directed to inmates, offering them a complete rehabilitation program combined with economic opportunities. To win the inmates’ trust, La Cana first creates a relationship by facilitating creative and therapeutic activities such as painting and games, before presenting them with the possibility of participating in a working program. The inmates are then selected based on their willingness and commitment, and after a 4-month training in crochet, inmates start working by creating small figurines. Crochet was chosen as an activity because it does not present major logistical problems and can adapt to the security protocols of prisons. Moreover, crochet is a viable tool to relieve stress for inmates as a calming activity. Usually two women per prison are responsible for ensuring that the complete order is ready for a member of La Cana to pick up every two weeks. In case one of the figurines does not meet the quality standard, the women work as a team to improve them at the time of inspection. This quality control is very important, as Daniela wants women to learn discipline and commitment in preparation for their reintegration into the formal labor market. 92% of women say that by working with La Cana, they earned a higher salary in prison than the one they earned before being imprisoned. Daniela knows that offering a job alone is not enough to improve wellbeing in prison, which is why all inmates participate in a human development program that includes psychological support and classes on basic financial education, art, culture and sports.
Thanks to Daniela’s holistic strategy, a positive change in the prison atmosphere is noticeable. Not only do the incarcerated women have a fair working place, but they are more emotionally stable, with a positive outlook on the future post-release and are also eager to find their place in Mexican society. For example, after the September 2017 earthquake in Mexico, some women with whom La Cana worked wanted to participate in the reconstruction process. Therefore, they proposed creating a little crochet figurine of the nationally famous rescue dog Frida in order to give part of the money from the sales to an association building new houses for families affected by the earthquake.
Daniela has taken advantage of her experience working and spending time in prison with inmates to better identify their necessities and understand the penitentiaries. This knowledge, combined with Daniela’s expertise as a lawyer, informs and legitimizes her advocacy work within the second part of her strategy: to have a wider positive impact on a national scale.
Once the number of women she was working with grew, Daniela realized that she could not continue paying them their regular salary in cash because of safety reasons, as she was handling ever larger amounts of cash. This was the origin of her collaboration with the Penitentiary Industry that is now the distribution channel for La Cana to pay each employee, keeping 10% of the salary to pay damages related to their crime and 10% going to an investment fund to be given to the convict upon their release. In case an inmate must fulfill a life sentence, the Penitentiary Industry does not retain the 10% of the inmate’s salary for the investment fund, a new agreement proposed by Daniela.
In 2016, Mexico’s National Law of Criminal Execution was adopted to take into consideration International Labor Organization standards. However, this law fails to recognize the current reality within jails. Daniela took the opportunity of the new law to propose a protocol of 49 articles adapted to consider prison realities and the needs of inmates to the National Security Commission, the institution in charge of peace and security in Mexico. The protocol states that inmates shall be paid for the number of working hours and not by working day. While not exceeding the maximum number of hours permitted by law, the protocol proposes that 4 hours per day can be realized within a fixed timeframe, while the rest of the working hours are flexible. Per the law, all employees have the right to six vacation days per year, thus requiring vacation days to be added to the inmate’s salary, as well as if inmates work on Sundays or bank holidays. The employer is obliged to provide the inmates with all working materials, and authorities within the prison have no right to retain them from the working convicts. Officially registering inmates with the National Tax Administration Service implies that any convict employed within the prison will have access to the same rights as any regular worker: paid leave, sick pay, retirement or maternity benefits, and the right to go to any public hospital in case of a disease the prison cannot attend to. As 99% of the inmates were not part of the formal labor system before entering prison, having access to social security is a great benefit.
In addition to securing basic working and social rights, Daniela has successfully promoted a change in fiscal legislation to incentivize companies to offer formal working opportunities to inmates, finally guaranteeing that, whether employing in or out of prisons, the cost will be the same. This tax initiative has been adopted and implemented by the National Tax Administration Service.
Daniela has started a follow-up program for the released women, which enables them to continue working for La Cana from their homes. Daniela is currently looking for a place in Mexico City to continue the rehabilitation program with psychological follow-up for released women. Daniela is collecting funds to conduct a national survey in different prisons of the country to have a better overview of the needs of convicts across the country for her future advocacy work, as she is aware that the deeper one dives into the prison system, the more one sees the need for change.
In addition to her national impact through advocacy work, Daniela directly has impacted more than 250 incarcerated women in three different prisons, with plans to implement her program in two more penitentiaries in the State of Mexico this year. Within a few years, her objective is to implement her program in male penitentiaries with carpentry workshops, which she already piloted this year. Daniela finances the cost of La Cana thanks to the sale of the products made by women. Of the 10 women released since La Cana’s inception, seven have been canalized by La Cana to be formally employed and one has established her own knitting business. The emphasis on fostering wellbeing and creating dignified working opportunities not just during convicts’ time in prison but also upon their release contributes substantially to breaking the cycle of recidivism.
Daniela’s work on creating legislation to recognize and regulate labor in penitentiaries for Mexico has the potential to be adapted in other Latin American countries, as such regulations are currently inexistent.
Daniela’s first contact with incarcerated women was during law school, when she visited a female penitentiary for her studies. During the visit, she was shocked by the undignified conditions in which convicts were living and the inexistence of opportunities for inmates to use their time in prison to develop useful skills or personal wellness. Daniela wanted to help these women and started coming every weekend to spend time with them, but quickly realized she was not resolving the problem from the root, and wanted to do something that would positively impact their lives in a lasting way. As she knew incarcerated women needed economic opportunities, she had the idea to empower them to produce a high quality product that could be sold outside prison. She started bringing knitting material to the prison to teach women to produce crochet figurines, but at first, women stole the materials and did not respect deadlines. Daniela never gave up, showing firmness and perseverance in order to be taken seriously by the incarcerated women, despite her very young age of 25 years at the time.
Since she was very young, Daniela has been concerned about inequalities and injustices in her country. She was influenced by her grandmother who was very involved in social issues and worked with inmates in the prison of her village in northern Mexico. Her father, a human rights advocate, also had an important influence on transmitting to her his passion for justice. She followed his path and started a law degree at the University of Anahuac. At the same time she started to work as a volunteer in an NGO helping victims of child sexual abuse with administrative procedures and preparing their trials. This experience made her realize how unfair and inefficient the Mexican judicial system was. She also worked at an Ashoka Fellow’s organization Idheas, Litigio Estratégico en Derechos Humanos, and for 4 years, in a law firm, where she learned about Mexican law and procedures. Although she had the opportunity to become associate of the firm, with impressive responsibilities and a very high salary for her young age, Daniela knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur and rejected this offer to dedicate all of her time to the personal project she was passionate about: La Cana. Daniela comes from a family of entrepreneurs: her father works on his own account and her three brothers co-founded their own business, so she knew early on that she also wanted to create her own enterprise.
Daniela holds a master’s degree in Human Rights and Democracy from the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales in Mexico (Flacso). Taking advantage of her expertise as a lawyer, Daniela has identified that by changing Mexican legislation on how labor is regulated by the penitentiary system, she would have the largest impact on inmate lives.