Faustino Zapico García
Ashoka Fellow desde 2007   |   Spain

Faustino Zapico García

UTE Villabona
Faustino Zapico has reformulated the structure of the prison system to break the subculture that transforms these institutions into schools of crime. Where the “law of silence”, confrontation, and…
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This description of Faustino Zapico García's work was prepared when Faustino Zapico García was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.


Faustino Zapico has reformulated the structure of the prison system to break the subculture that transforms these institutions into schools of crime. Where the “law of silence”, confrontation, and mistrust have been the prevailing attitudes, now trust and values are transmitted through micro-societies that are co-managed by the inmates along with the prison workers. With a foundation on humane treatment, this alternative model offers constant immersion in formal and non-formal education in the values and skills necessary for successful reinsertion into society.

La idea nueva

Faustino is transforming prisons into educational spaces. He dismantles the harmful prison subculture defined by drugs, violence, and the “law of silence”—which obliges inmates to keep abusive practices secret. Using an alternative prison model that immerses prisoners in an educational environment that teaches skills and more importantly, values such as empathy and kindness, Faustino has created micro-societies that enable inmates to learn to live as they would outside the prison walls.
A key aspect to this prison model has been to radically reformulate the roles of the two largest groups involved in prison life, guards and inmates, removing the traditional prisoner-jailer relationship of constant conflict. Faustino has been able to convert traditional prison modules, perpetuators of the harmful subculture, into co-managed spaces run by the inmates alongside the guards, called Units of Therapy and Education (UTEs). As they work together, trust is built in contrast to an environment based on fear and confrontation.
In the UTEs, guards are highly valued and given responsibility as tutors over groups of inmates according to their specific educational levels and training (unlike traditional prisons where guards are undervalued and only expected to watch, maintain order, and count prisoners). The inmates and guards work with therapeutic professionals to create and then co-manage the ideal environment to promote constant formal and non-formal education in values and skills.
Since Fausino’s program began, violent behavior has been reduced in society as a whole by drastically lowering the rates of re-offence from (a usual) 60 percent to 10 percent of those that have participated in UTE.

El problema

The prison population in Spain has grown steadily over the last seven years with no signs of decline. Increasingly violent behavior patterns are emerging that threaten the well-being and safety of the majority of prisoners. An important contributor to this decay is the fact that within three years of release 60 percent of prisoners re-offend, often with a more serious crime. This alarming statistic indicates that prisons, rather than being “correctional institutions” have turned into schools of crime and violence where new offenders become more dangerous.

Since the introduction of heroine into Spain in the 1980s, drugs have been an axis and motor upon which prison activity runs. Today drug consumption is a lifestyle for approximately 80 percent of the prison population. Many new inmates use drugs for the first time in jail where mafias of drug dealers are made rich and powerful by controlling those who depend on their products.

Prisons have become tense and violent places where inmates learn more delinquent behavior once inside. Furthermore, control of these spaces by drug mafias keeps inmates from reporting any kind of conflict or abusive behavior on other inmates or the guards. The guards stay within their protected spaces, intervene only during dangerous conflicts, and avoid confrontation with the powerful mafias that dominate the community.

This prison subculture is not a recent phenomenon. From the late 18th Century with Jeremy Bentham and his model of panoptical prison structures, the concept of these institutions has centered on inmates being punished and punitive repentance under the constant watch of the guards. For many this was seen as a necessary to impose respect and authority for the law. However, this physical and organizational structure has created a system of constant vigilance where prisoners live in fear and aimlessness. This, in turn, gives way to a culture of two large collectives in fierce confrontation. Upon being released, ex-prisoners are often resentful towards the system and society.

Though society has changed throughout the years and in most parts of the world, the idea of physical punishment for crimes has been reconsidered, prison structures remain essentially the same and produce the same results. Few incentives are offered to those who suggest change and no serious transformations have taken place, despite initiatives like half-way houses. Although many organizations and institutions are firmly dedicated to creating more specialized opportunities for the prisoners once they are released from the correctional institution, very few—if any—have focused on transforming the inside of the prison structure, into an environment that enables the re-education of values and rehabilitation to successfully integrate inmates into society. The initiatives that have attempted to change this negative prison subculture at its root have always found resistance from the guards (the largest prison work-force); skeptical of any changes that involve giving up power or personal security.

La estrategia

Faustino’s strategy is to “liberate” as many prison modules as possible to eradicate the current prison subculture. This is achieved by building a community of prison professionals and inmates who want to live in and co-manage a better environment. When this group begins to grow, a liberated space is created based on a set of rules in a contract that all participants must sign, and eventually whole physical modules are redesigned to hold educational micro-societies; in sharp contrast with the rest of the prison.

The main element in Faustino’s strategy is the internal transformation of the roles and day-to-day experience of those most involved in prison life: The guards and the inmates.

The inmates are given responsibility in order to convert them into true protagonists over their own lives, some for the first time. They are structured into groups (typically twelve to fifteen inmates and two guards) that help plan and oversee the different activities that take place in the module. The groups meet daily and are accountable to each other. They serve as the place where inmates reflect on their past and future, and prepare themselves to re-enter society as persons with new values. They also help inmates reflect on what has led them to delinquency: In most cases, circumstances linked to drug-addiction and/or personal and social misbehaviors. In addition to receiving new members, the groups co-manage their peers’ behavior: Suspicion of rule breaking, such as drug use or violent behavior, is confronted immediately by fellow members in the groups. This active prevention is a means for inmates to assume responsibility not only over their personal actions, but the actions of those in the group they belong. The resulting experience of the prison groups are the “school of values.”

The guards are transformed into agents of change when assigned the responsibility as tutors to individual inmates. Fulfilling this role, they are critical members of the multidisciplinary team that makes decisions concerning procedures, rules, and specific situations as well as overseeing day-to-day follow-up. The guards are key figures as they supervise and work with the inmates to maintain a clean, educational, and safe environment inside the prison. The active participation of the guards in their role as tutors working closely with groups of inmates is fundamental to the proper functioning of the UTE. Guards and prisoners slowly break the barriers of mistrust that had dominated their relationships and learn to work as a team. Making decisions together gives both groups the responsibility to manage a living space where education in values and life skills is possible.

Because of Faustino’s experience working within the prison system, he is able to use the resources available in the Penitentiary System to make this transformation happen. Faustino uses legislation as a working tool. The existing laws in Spain provide much more room for the quick social reinsertion of inmates than most other countries. This presents an opportunity for the UTE model to work with inmates to advance their learning and help them to become responsible citizens. The aim is to completely transform their mindset so that they become the main actors in their lives and leave prison with a desire to start afresh, instead of resentful towards the system and society. The Villabona UTE has achieved an amazing success rate of transferring out more inmates than any other penitential institution in all of Spain, maintaining a re-offence rate of 10 percent, considerably lower than national levels, which oscillates between 40 percent and 60 percent.

Faustino’s final goal is successful social reinsertion, and he promotes a network of associations, businesses, and institutions working on specific reinsertion activities and job opportunities for former inmates. This is key to influence society to be more receptive to integrating former prisoners. Faustino’s model entails the creation of a Family and Friends Association that together with citizen organizations working in the area, functions as a “social mediator”, creating links with the outside world. This social and institutional network prevails as a strong support system to the project in moments when other interests attempt to interfere with the initiative.

In the same way that inmates are receiving constant education and training and are “getting something from society” they are asked to “give back” through various activities. One of these is hosting visits from high school students, teachers, and parents, where the inmates talk about their past and encourage youth to find solutions to their problems that don’t include drugs, alcohol, or violence. At the moment, more than 15,000 youth have participated in this program with astounding results; their attitudes change realizing their dangerous behavioral patterns. The inmates also go to schools to perform plays and give health education workshops, both themed around the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.

To spread this transformation to the whole penitentiary system in Spain and throughout Europe, Faustino and his team have been refining the model for ten years. Each strategy is re-evaluated by the multidisciplinary team and the groups of inmates on an ongoing basis. This gives the model a flexible character, constantly being adapted for new circumstances and situations. For a permanent effect, he promotes renewals in legislation necessary to support changes in roles, including transforming the concept of guards within the prison system—by law—into educators.

As part of this replication strategy Faustino has created a visible model of the UTE in the Villabona prison and has expanded to seven other prisons. The penitentiary authority is promoting Faustino’s model as a best practice and providing full support for its expansion. In Europe, Faustino is coordinating a project called, “Making Spaces for Change” that includes other prison programs from around Europe; sharing his model as the most successful in creating positive prison micro-societies.

Faustino is convinced it is possible to break the circle of increasing criminal behavior the prison subculture imposes on inmates. The effect of this change in society will be seen as youth with previous criminal records are rehabilitated as positive and engaged citizens after time in prison. To achieve this, Faustino is pushing for the creation of at least one UTE module in every prison. First time offenders, particularly youth, will be held here and kept away from the traditional structure. He sees this step as the point of no-return for the complete transformation of prisons to become true “correctional institutions” that produce high rates of successful reinsertion and reduce crime.

La persona

Faustino was raised in a family deeply concerned about the situation of the most needy and committed to effectively contributing. At a young age he showed frustration with the injustices that certain sectors of society suffered and acted to change them. First he started a club for marginalized youth in his home city. Later on he got involved in different Christian movements and began law studies to learn the keys in changing structures that forced people into cyclical problems. At that time, the dictatorship in Spain began to fall and Faustino discovered the clandestine political movement for social democracy, a clear platform for change, which he contributed to by quitting law and working in construction to help increase the movement’s grassroots base. By the time democracy was established Faustino had achieved positions of responsibility in the Socialist Party but decided that politics was not the place he needed to be to fight against the injustices many sectors of society still suffered. Having learned the power of starting a movement from the bottom, he abandoned politics to dedicate his life to the population he considered still most excluded and mistreated in a system reminiscent of the dictatorship: Prisoners.

Faustino spent his first years in prison working as a guard to identify and speak out against the abuses and violence that were part of daily life at the Modelo prison in Barcelona, one of Spain’s toughest prisons. Although Faustino experienced trying to change the structures from inside, he describes the first years in the Modelo as the most difficult in his life. This was the time Faustino says that he learned what not to do in prisons. Despite the constant threats and mistreatment from his fellow workers and superiors, he kept his focus on fighting for the basic human rights of the prisoners that were continuously violated and working for a renewal of the whole system. He discovered through various experiences how humanized treatment and respect were the keys to building a dynamic of constant positive re-education inside the prison. Over the years, these realizations were the foundation that led Faustino to learn and develop a set of methodological principles to build an environment that facilitates this model of education.

In 1992 Faustino returned to his hometown region to work as an educator in the prison. He formed a team with a social worker and a few willing inmates and began a project to test the principles he had learned in previous years. With no model as a precedent, the experiment was free to develop step by step according to the needs. In 1994, with a group of sixty, Faustino’s team requested to be moved to an empty module and the first UTE was born. Now holding half of the prison’s population in the “free spaces” that Faustino’s teams operate, the UTE is growing. Lately he spends most of his time showing his model to workers from prisons around Spain and Europe, teaching the methodological principles that the UTE model entails, and patiently mentoring workers from other prisons to establish them.

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