Saskia Niño de Rivera is fighting to change the current Mexican penitentiary system, which is popularly known as the country’s ‘university of crime.’ Saskia believes that coming from a family with a criminal history or growing up inside a prison should not destine one to a lifetime of crime. Working with infants born in prison, adolescents who have committed serious crimes and at-risk populations, she is researching and changing the incentives and conditions that have corrupted the Mexican penitentiary goals.
The New Idea
In Mexico, the penitentiary system is popularly known as the ‘university of crime.’ Rather than providing rehabilitation or even correction, the system often releases inmates who are more violent and dangerous than when they entered.
Saskia works within the prisons and the country’s most dangerous neighborhoods in order to change the extremely rough environments that funnel Mexicans into crime. In Mexico City alone, each year 130 babies are born in prisons, where they were formerly allowed to live until six years of age. Saskia has worked with the government to change the maximum age these children can remain in prison to 3 years old to limit damage and also change incentives for having children in prison. Her organization Reinserta Un Mexicano creates safe spaces within the prisons and teaches their mothers how to raise these children in this context, then teaches the inmates themselves to impart these workshops in a ‘train the trainer’ model. Reinserta also runs a halfway house for adolescents who have committed serious crimes, where they continue their education and avoid returning to crime. In Mexico City’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, these rehabilitated youth speak to other young people about alternative opportunities and the problems of entering a life of crime.
At the same time, Saskia is working to identify and reevaluate the incentives that lead people to commit crimes, and changing the legal framework to support rehabilitation and education. Working with the national anti-kidnapping commission, she is interviewing 2500 kidnappers to develop a psychological profile of kidnappers and prevent this crime, which has seen a rise in Mexico in recent years. She is also interviewing mothers to understand the incentives that motivate them to have children in prison. Saskia’s research motivates her public policies work, which has changed the law that allows children to remain within the system until six, and aims to change legal incentives impeding prisoners’ employment or the recognition of their education.
Throughout all of her efforts, Saskia is seeking to humanize the inhuman. Mexicans are so accustomed to insecurity and crime, she says, that they have little sympathy for people who are convicted and incarcerated. Working at every level – from dignifying the reputation of prison wardens to working with a global public relations company to make Mexicans aware that there are 130 children in the city’s women’s prison– Saskia is generating a national will for change in the penitentiary system. Saskia believes that the Mexican security problems will not disappear until the ‘university of crime’ has been transformed, and Mexicans begin to remember that those found within the prisons are humans too.
The problem of insecurity features prominently in Mexican society. Despite economic growth and development over the past several decades, crime levels have gone up, not down. Huge inequality means that large segments of the population remain in pockets of extreme poverty, and especially in these pockets, crime - regularly including violent crimes such as kidnapping and homicide - remains pervasive.
While insecurity is a result of a complex mix of factors including poverty, corruption, and drug-related violence, behind all of these elements is a key failure of the penitentiary system. Prisons in Mexico not only fail to rehabilitate incarcerated persons, but they are such violent environments that they make existing tendencies worse, and almost guarantee a return to crime. Mexican prisons are overpopulated (sometimes at rates as high as 300%) and 65% of Mexican prisons are self-governed, making them so dangerous that the prison directors themselves will not enter the area with the inmates.
This environment is especially damaging for incarcerated youth and children who grow up within the prison walls. Mexican law allows babies to live with their mothers within prisons until they are six years old, and releases all incarcerated youth, no matter how serious their crime, at the age of 18. After a childhood spent in these dangerous environments, where violence, abusive speech, early sexual exposure, and even inmates wielding arms are the norm, these young people are released back to society more violent than they were when they entered. 60% of adolescents in conflict with the law come from families with a criminal history, and 90% of those currently in prison had some type of contact during childhood with someone in conflict with the law.
The current legal framework presents a number of troubling incentives that continue to support crime and insecurity in Mexico. A number of policies designed to protect children in prisons – the fact that guards are prohibited from interacting directly with children, for example – are abused when children are used to cover up illicit activities within prisons. The age at which children must leave prisons varies across Mexican states, but can be as late as three or even, in Mexico City’s largest prison, six years old. Furthermore, the Mexican government does not currently recognize the education these children receive within the prisons, a fact that makes it difficult for them to enter school upon leaving prison, and may drive them to criminal activities themselves. Mexican law also currently requires every formerly incarcerated person to present a letter to potential employers referencing their criminal background, no matter how small the crime. This letter makes it enormously difficult for formerly incarcerated persons to turn away from a life of crime.
Finally, the Mexican population has demonstrated little political will to change the current penitentiary system. Accustomed to living with so much violence and insecurity, Mexicans find it difficult to have sympathy for those who have committed crimes, and often advocate for punishments that are practically vindictive in nature. At times, prisoners are chained together like livestock and subjected to inhuman treatment within the walls. Upon release, they receive society’s hatred, not empathy.
In tackling the massive challenge of insecurity in Mexico, Saskia Niño de Rivera has chosen to focus on a specific population behind much of the country’s crime; the population already in contact with or at risk of being in contact with the penitentiary system.
Saskia has based all of her work on the research she has conducted and continues to conduct on the influences that a penitentiary background, family or childhood can have on an individual’s future trajectory. In order to have a strong case for the causal link between prison environments and criminality and recidivism, she is studying the effects of these environments so that she will have research to bring before the policymakers who could influence these conditions. Equally important, she is working to understand the incentives currently in place; her team is interviewing women who become pregnant in prison and more than 2500 kidnappers to identify and combat their traditional motivations. Saskia believes that she can trace back much of today’s criminality to roots in the prison system, or to criminals’ childhood backgrounds. Based on this understanding, she is developing programming to address each of these roots, in order to prevent today’s children and adolescents from joining a future class of persons in trouble with the law.
One of these groups that Saskia believes to be most at-risk is the population of babies born in prison; 130 under the age of six live in Santa Martha, Mexico’s largest women’s prison. The population that Saskia works with is unique in that most of the mothers are serving very long or lifetime sentences, so the prospect of reinsertion is not relevant to their experience, and they know that their child will at some point in the near future be separated from them. The program Sembrando Vinculos, Cosechando Paz (Sowing Links Harvesting Peace) , helps these women to learn best practices in parenting and develop loving and healthy relationships with their children. The program is imparted first by Reinserta staff, and then inmates are taught to give them themselves, in a train the trainer model that empowers the women and makes the organization more sustainable. The bebeteca provides a safe place to play and grow, where only mothers with children are allowed to enter. Workshops for three different age groups help foster each child’s emotional development. By fostering healthy parent-child relationships, Reinserta un Mexicano helps the children grow up as healthy as possible, so that they will be best prepared for the day when they must leave the prison and enter the outside world. Saskia has begun this program in Santa Martha, which holds the largest population of incarcerated women in Latin America, but is working to bring it to other prisons in Mexico.
Another extremely high-risk population is made up of children growing up in the poorest neighborhoods, in Mexico called barrios, of Mexico City. These children often come from families where poverty has made crime common, and have frequent daily contact with criminality. Saskia’s program Barrio a Barrio brings formerly incarcerated youths to speak at these schools; telling the story of the series of choices which led them to prison and the conditions they experienced while there. By shedding light on the realities of the penitentiary system, and also showing the legal paths they have since chosen, these young people help children to avoid following in their footsteps and continuing the vicious cycles of criminality.
The third population with which Saskia works to keep out of crime is recently released youth with high-security prison backgrounds. Because this population is so challenging and dangerous, many organizations do not work with young people who have committed serious crimes. However, because recidivism is extremely common in Mexico, especially among minors who have committed serious crimes and were released at 18, Saskia has established a halfway house, which provides these youth a transition space. The Reinserta Un Mexicano halfway house provides them with the support and infrastructure to consider options other than a return to crime, in addition to scholarships to continue their education.
In order to create a true system change, Saskia is using her research to demand a change in public policies regarding the current prison system. She was asked by the Mexican government to form part of the team reviewing the Ley Nacional de Ejecución Penal (National Penal Execution Law), and has recently received a commitment from the government that they will reduce the age that children can stay with their mothers in children to three years nationally. She is also working with the Ministry of Education to ensure that the education children do receive within prisons is recognized by the national government so that they can enter the normal school system when they leave prison. She is also working to change the law which requires formerly incarcerated persons to present a letter about their criminal background to potential employers, no matter how long ago the crime was committed or how grave it was. Saskia’s research on kidnapping will also be used by the National Anti-Kidnapping Commission in determining national changes in kidnapping policies. She has become a trusted expert in the discussion about preventing individuals from becoming criminals, a fact which gives her leverage in the coming public policy discussion.
Behind all of these projects is Saskia’s desire to humanize the inhuman, and to challenge Mexicans to consider the reality of their country’s penitentiary system. She is working with Leo Burnett, a large global public relations firm, to bring the country’s policymakers’ attention to the plight of the children in prison. She also conducts a number of conferences and public talks, seeking to change perceptions which are based in fear and hatred. Saskia believes that it is critical for the population to understand that Mexico’s criminals are people too, and that particular circumstances and environments are what have driven them to crime. She also helps prisons design initiatives to elevate the dignity of prison wardens, believing that their low status in society is a factor in the system’s continued challenges.
Reinserta un Mexicano’s work has begun to be recognized as a critical piece of the Mexican security effort. Through Barrio a Barrio, Reinserta Un Mexicano educates a population of more than 600 at-risk adolescents. Another 20 inmates work with more than 230 adolescents in the process of reinsertion in order to help them avoid a return to the vicious cycle of crime. The new baby library in Santa Martha is currently serving more than 130 children and working directly with approximately 80 mothers and children in weekly workshops. More importantly, however, Saskia’s research will have impact on national kidnapping and prison policies, which will affect all of Mexico’s prison system and generations to come. Currently, Reinserta Un Mexicano has a staff of 20. The team also works with the inmates who have been taught to conduct their workshops, and the seven rehabilitated adolescents, they are currently hosting at the halfway house, who conduct the workshops in the barrios.
Reinserta un Mexicano functions as a nonprofit that can accept private sector donations. The organization has received funding from diverse sources including the LEGO and Johnson Foundations, the private companies Nassar and Estrategas Mexico, as well as funding from the federal government. Saskia is currently working on a model that will involve the sale of products made within the prison with the inmates’ stories. The model will provide some earned income and also help toward Saskia’s goal of helping Mexicans empathize with people inside the prisons. Looking to the future, Saskia will continue the work within Santa Martha and other Mexican prisons, expanding her programming across the country, but doing so by handing over her approved methodologies to third parties and by training the inmates themselves to give the workshops. In order to generate national change, she has dedicated herself to the public policy aspects of Reinserta Un Mexicano. She sees her research with the Anti-Kidnapping Commision, as well as her work on the team reviewing the Ley Nacional de Ejecución Penal as elements that have the potential to dramatically change the Mexican penitentiary landscape in the next five years.
The daughter of a Mexican father and a Dutch mother, Saskia Niño de Rivera grew up concerned with social justice and the state of insecurity in her home country of Mexico. In high school, Saskia was awarded her high school’s Leadership Award for a project she designed helping women and children who lived in the sewers of Mexico City. This project, which involved providing AIDS talks and contraception for these women and helping them access public services, developed Saskia’s budding interests in psychology and the vulnerable populations within Mexico City.
When she was 17, a close family member of Saskia’s was kidnapped, and she was exposed up close to a long and difficult negotiation process. Rather than scaring Saskia, , this experience made her passionate about criminology, and inspired her to go work for the negotiator for the friend’s case, at the age of 18 while she was studying law at the prestigious ITAM. During her first week on the job, the negotiator gave Saskia two trash bags full of recorded kidnapping negotiations and asked her to transcribe and analyze them, expecting the task to scare her off. Instead, Saskia turned in her analysis two weeks later, and continued to work for the negotiator until at 23 she left to join a law firm that worked in criminal justice.
Law, however, did not satisfy Saskia. She felt that she was not having as much impact on the criminal justice system as she had hoped, so she left law school and the firm and went to UNAM to study psychology, with a specialization in criminal and prison psychology. Her psychology background helped Saskia to understand that Mexico’s security problem had much to do with the psychological profiles and life experiences of the people who were committing crimes. This work also exposed her to the conditions of the Mexican prison system, which she began to see as a critical piece of the larger problem of insecurity.
Saskia returned to ITAM to finish her law degree, and founded Reinserta Un Mexicano in 2013. Today Saskia serves as Reinserta un Mexicano’s director, and also serves as the Director of Penitentiary Connection for the National Anti-Kidnapping Commission. At the age of only 27, she has earned the respect of prison guards and officials, as well as government officials and lawmakers, and has become an authority on the relationship between the penitentiary system and the country’s problems with insecurity.