Maria Medrano seeks to transform prisons into productive places for women, cultivating them and preparing to return to society with employable skills and confidence.
The New Idea
Maria designed the first program that addresses the most destitute and isolated in Argentina, the population of incarcerated women. Through a multi-faceted approach she seeks to make prisons and the systems surrounding them a productive “eco-system” that ultimately allows for reintegrating women and their families into society. Convinced that the prison is the last link in a chain of exclusion and disenfranchisement that ensnares poor women, Maria pioneered a relationship-centered continuum of education and engagement for women prisoners and ex-convicts to create concrete opportunities for women out of prison and to change the mindsets of prisoners, their families and communities. Yo no fui (It wasn’t me) offers new, needed tools so that these women can imagine a new life for themselves within a community that they choose, and adopt the practical skills and attitudes that will make this a reality. Maria’s work proposes to reset and reorient relationships—familial, social and political—in which the women are involved.
Yo no fui offers a systematic and holistic approach to transform the way the criminal justice system conceives of and treats women prisoners, making it a productive and more nurturing place. Maria’s program works to form new communities, families, and support networks for the first time in their lives. Through establishing safe environments for personal development, relationship-building and learning, Maria’s program deals with the root problems affecting the women, including their lack of labor skills, emotional marginalization and poor self-confidence. Maria also works closely with the administrative bureaucracy of the penitentiary system, engaging with and shifting how the prison guards and wardens perceive the women, and reshaping the roles and interactions of the relevant public ministries involved in imprisonment.
For these women, Yo no fui is a place of belonging comparable to the families from whom most are estranged. As it assists women in acquiring the technical and psychological skills to reintegrate permanently in society, Yo no fui is becoming a model not just for women prisoners but also for larger prison reform programs, including interventions with male prisoners, while contributing to the reform of the infrastructure of the penitentiary system. As Maria extends the reach of Yo no fui, she has begun to work in jails and prisons at both the provincial and federal level, and has embarked on a long-term strategy to change the mindsets and practices of the next generation of prison authorities.
Women prisoners are the most marginalized segment of Argentine society. The vast majority are mothers and housewives from very low economic segments of society. 90% of them also come from broken and dysfunctional families, with abusive or drug-addicted husbands and children—whom they often bore while in prison. Many come from two or three generations of women who have been unemployed, and who lack formal education and the social customs that familiarized them with a culture of work. Most never learned the values a healthy workplace inculcates, such as personal responsibility and self-respect. The children of these women are often either neglected or abandoned outright, sent to live with a relative or put into state institutions. About 41% of these women are immigrants with few connections to the local society, having migrated on their own without official papers to seek a better fortune in Argentina, or who were victims of transnational trafficking rings.
For these women, a sense of utter isolation from society and extreme vulnerability degrades their sense of dignity and self-respect. Most end up committing low-level crimes and misdemeanors such as petty theft, small-scale drug dealing, pickpocketing etc., more out of desperation or necessity rather than from a pathological sense of criminality. Those who enter the criminal justice system are usually sentenced to long periods of imprisonment.
The Argentine legal system and social traditions value punitive “tough on crime” approaches to punishment, rather than rehabilitation. Prisons in Argentina function in a militarized way, due to a law passed in 1973 under the military dictatorship. They bear very little emphasis on policies and practices that help support reinsertion of men and women into the labor and social mainstream, leading to high rates of recidivism—although the public ministries do not even care to record the exact figures. The few attempts at rehabilitation have thus far been ineffective and do not train prisoners in job skills. Once they are released, no streamlined government welfare program helps support their integration. The challenge in fostering interagency collaboration among the Justice, Labor and Education ministries means duplication and contradiction of authority and responsibility in theory, and women are mired in the “red tape” rather than receiving actual resources. Women under house arrest find themselves in especially constricted: by law they are prohibited from pursuing even low-level employment to earn a modicum salary, nor can they even access some government subsidies that are available to women in prisons.
The penal environment itself ends up perpetuating the experience of marginalization and dependency among incarcerated women. Though at present penitentiary service ostensibly seeks to fulfill certain education and welfare functions, they are poorly prepared to do so. Until Maria’s efforts, reform efforts were largely absent. The general social culture in Argentina is unsympathetic toward these women, especially the immigrants in the prison population. Most people tend to perceive that their behavior merits their incarceration, rather than trying to understand the context behind it. The children of women prisoners bear the social stigma as well, too often feeling socially ostracized, because they were born inside the jails. If no cultural shift emerges, and a concerted effort to prepare women prisoners and their children to successfully integrate into society, they will quickly fall back into the vicious circle of necessity and end back in prison.
Maria is creating a continuum of engagement for women prisoners beginning in the prisons and extending beyond their release. She focuses on first building individual relationships and then helping the women develop a new sense of community, belonging and interdependence, phenomena that none of these women have ever experienced. This engagement is interwoven with training in practical skills, such as vocational training in numerous disciplines, with the added goal to boost their psychological wellbeing and self-esteem. The core element of the Yo no fui program is to forge new relationships among participants, the teacher/trainers, and other members of the prison environment to nurture a culture of dignity, self-respect, and work.
Having gained admittance into the prisons, Yo no fui exposes the women to a variety of arts and trades which the women prisoners can learn and participate in. These continue outside of the penal institutions as well, as in carpentry, craft bookbinding, textile design, textile machinery, loom weaving, drawing and graphic design, silkscreen, photography, poetry and journalism. The training courses offer concrete tools to aid the women in achieving self-sufficiency while also creating a new culture of work for the women and their families. Each course has a humanistic focus, highlighting a more emotional dimension as well as practical skills training. For instance, in the poetry course, the women are taught to express their feelings and experiences through a new form that can also connect them with one another. Maria sees that the courses are spaces for positive collaboration, and encourages teamwork when producing the crafts. The prisoners learn that human interaction with others does not always have to resort to violence—often their lifelong experience before entering prison.
Many women, after completing their time in prison, continue participating in these workshops as partners in the activities or as teachers even. By recruiting former convicts as teachers, Maria introduces new positive role models into the women’s lives. Every person, including the trainers and the trainees, are paid (even if only a small amount), helping to grant them a sense of worth and respect for the value for their efforts. One alumna, a Polish immigrant who was the victim of human trafficking, who took part in the book-binding workshop in prison, later became a teacher in the classes, fell in love and married a man who helped Maria, and started to form a family, literally and figuratively, with people she interacted with at Yo no fui. Thus she had transformed her life from one of utter exclusion to social integration.
Maria is working to create a permanent, fully staffed, full-time School for Work within the prison environment that is managed by specially trained and prepared educators. Integrating the school fully into the penal system is part of her broader reform strategy. It will ensure greater flexibility for the program and increased access to prisoners, while also helping enhance the respect and relationships of the prisoner participants, their teachers and trainers and with the guards and penal authorities. Success for the effort requires a complex series of negotiations with multiple ministries whose support will be required. Negotiations have already begun with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labor, where Yo No fui is holding workshops. By developing broad constituencies among multiple ministries, she is beginning to overcome bureaucratic intransigence, while also shifting the program’s dependence on the penitentiary system, which is part of the Justice Ministry, to other ministries with less of a “law-and-order” stigma attached.
To date, Maria and Yo no fui are working in two of the 5 federal prisons in Argentina, both located in Buenos Aires province, with some 600 women prisoners. She has begun negotiations to start programs in two provincial jails soon, and anticipates extending her work to other provinces in Argentina in the future. Maria is also in contact with other prison reform movements abroad, and has visited France to observe the rehabilitation and education programs for women in the prisons there.
A connector of people and institutions, Maria understands that fostering a network in support of the women prisoners bridges the social gaps that they had previously fallen into. Exposure to the outside world, for instance, is critical to reintroducing women prisoners back into society. She creates this exposure by inviting the program alumnae to come back and teach the job training programs. As successfully rehabilitated former prisoners come in contact with the incarcerated, these women find new inspiration. The value of these networks within and outside of the penal system also contributes to her work with the ministry. She also has started to conceive of programming for young people, the children of the incarcerated women, to help them re-adapt to society, by re-establishing their bonds of family between mother and child. This bridging tactic offers multiple results, from the practical—enabling a better delivery of services—to the attitudinal, shifting mindsets and perspectives about imprisoned women.
This attitudinal change is a long-term paramount goal for Maria, both for the prisoners and ex-prisoners themselves and the larger society. Maria and Yo no fui are actively working to raise social awareness about issues surrounding incarceration. Already engaging penal authorities, Maria has begun to think about the next generation, and has started teaching classes on human rights at Argentina’s sole prison management school at the University of Buenos Aires. Soon she will be issuing a new, regular journal called Yo no fui Magazine edited and published by the prisoners themselves, targeting key communities like universities. Additionally, Maria and Yo no fui have joined with various public campaigns, such as “For a Second Chance” supported by the insurance company La Segunda, carrying out dialogues about social problems arising from house arrest (at the Rojas Cultural Center at the University of Buenos Aires in 2009 and the Cultural Center for Cooperation in 2010). Maria has also taken part in forums and round tables and published articles about the activities and products fabricated in the workshops.
Maria has garnered support for her work through leveraging a mix of partnerships with federal agencies, as well as recently launching an earned income strategy from the sale of products produced by women in Yo no fui’s programs. The organization’s work with government is clear-cut, accessing diverse funding support from subsidies for microenterprises through the Social Development Ministry, job training grants through the Ministry of Labor, evaluation of “seed capital” productive projects through the Ministry of Industry, and connections with state offices to process documents and housing subsidies, etc. She and her team work hand-in-hand with commissions in the General Defense Ministry’s agencies for Social Issues, Prisons, Migrants and Gender Issues, with the Secretariat for Children, Youth and Families, all of which have responsibilities related to the young people whose mothers are incarcerated.
Maria’s work has now started a new phase of public policy influence in the Social Re-Adaptation program that forms part of the national Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, which petitioned the collaboration of Yo no fui to help reproduce some of its work in prisons. This brings her work and approach to an entirely new level, reaching not just women, but the countries much larger male prison population. Maria predicts a possible change in labor policies and how it affects the incarcerated populations.
Maria grew up in a middle-class family in the province of Buenos Aires. Her mother, a public school teacher in the outskirts of the capital city, taught her an awareness and concern for the most disadvantaged populations. Maria remembers accompanying her mother to baptisms, coming-of-age celebrations and parties in homes with dirt floors and loose tin sheeting to serve as a roof.
Finishing school, Maria decided to continue her education in East Asian Studies while she also started to work in a law firm, recommended by her lawyer father. There she underwent an experience that marked her life forever—drafting the legal documents for a Belorussian youth recently emigrated from Europe, who had been deceived and entrapped in a drug trafficking ring. She had arrived in Argentina without knowing Spanish or anything about the country, and ended up imprisoned and isolated. Experiencing the extremely delicate situation that this girl, who was practically her age, moved Maria deeply.
Maria started to visit the girl in prison to bring her comfort and company. While visiting the prison, she offered to give a workshop in poetry (a hobby of hers). The exposure to women prisoners introduced her to the complex and distressing reality of their incarceration and treatment. Her contact with them started to give rise to the concept of Yo no fui.