Deprivation of liberty does not mean deprivation of the right to education: youth deprived of liberty require more attention in Latin America

By Javier Gonzalez, Director of SUMMA and Manos Antoninis, Director of the GEM Report

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About 16% of imprisoned individuals in the world are in Latin America and the Caribbean, including 27,000 young people deprived of liberty. The Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, El Salvador, Grenada and Panama have incarceration rates above 400 per 100,000 people, while the global average is 144. Brazil has the third highest total number of people in confinement of any country in the world (690,000) after the USA and China. Many centres are overcrowded and under resourced. To further research these aspects and highlight the importance of guaranteeing the right to education of imprisoned youth, four background papers on the education of these children and youth were commissioned to feed into the 2020 GEM Regional Report – jointly developed by UNESCO and SUMMA – on inclusion and education in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Youth in confinement are among the most vulnerable groups in society. In fact, they tend to have lower literacy levels than their peers outside prisons. In Honduras, as of 2014, barely 6% of the prison population had a secondary education. In Uruguay, 59% of the 501 adolescents admitted in 2018 had not completed lower secondary education. These cases do not constitute exceptional situations in the region.

Credit: Alonis

This situation requires to be urgently addressed and prioritised by governments and society as a whole. Education is a universal human right and this does not exclude imprisoned youth. It is a legally established right in many Latin American countries. The UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, known as the Havana Rules, adopted by UN General Assembly Resolution 45/113 in 1990, affirm the importance of education and training. Rule 38 expressly acknowledges that‘[e]very juvenile of compulsory school age has the right to education suited to his or her needs and abilities and designed to prepare him or her for return to society’ and promotes education continuity after release. The rules also propose standards or conditions, particularly regarding special learning needs (cultural, ethnic or cognitive), learning environments (classroom space, library provision), certification of education and training activities, and training for future employment.

Moreover, a UN Human Rights Council report recommended that education for people in detention should be ‘guaranteed and entrenched in constitutional and/or other legislative instruments’, ‘adequately resourced from public funds’ and in ‘compliance with the standards set forth in international law’.

The importance of prison education

Beyond being a human right, prison education has important benefits for individuals living in confinement, prisons and societies. Education provides a chance to revisit one´s identity and support changes towards pro-social behaviour. This is key to allow inmates to develop a sense of citizenship and self-esteem. It also provides an opportunity to learn skills and gain work experience which in the future will help youth stay away from crime after release and adequately insert in society.

A meta-analysis in the United States found that prison education reduced probability of recidivism by 13 percentage points. Increased chance of employment is a key factor, with vocational education having twice the effect of other education types.

A recent UNESCO study shows the transformative potential of prison libraries. They provide access to reading material and information, including legal information and support for formal qualification, leading to improved literacy and a culture of reading and lifelong learning. It also supports the development of a more peaceful and positive culture in prisons. Brazil enables sentence reduction based on reading; participants can submit up to 12 book reviews per year to earn 48 days of remission.

Countries are paying more attention to the education of people in detention

There is no doubt that attention to the education of people deprived of liberty has increased in the last decades. Argentina, Mexico and Peru have set up a legal basis for prison education, for instance. In Argentina, the national programme of prison education was established in 2004. Article 133 of the 2011 law on deprivation of liberty specified that ‘inmates must have full access to education in all its levels and modalities’. Inmates should be able to acquire certification in minimum literacy through the youth and adult literacy programme Encuentro so they can resume their education. The Autonomous City of Buenos Aires has established literacy centres in all its prisons, where 80% of participants continued their primary studies. Resolution 127 of the Federal Education Council established that education should also be provided at higher education levels for youth and adults. The city and province of Buenos Aires and Cordoba and Mendoza provinces have made the most progress in expanding education provision at the university level.

Colombia has an education law for the social rehabilitation of people deprived of liberty and an education model for the penitentiary and prison system. In El Salvador, the Constitution guarantees minors the right to receive education without discrimination, including those in confinement. The Plan El Salvador Educado, drawn up after wide consultation with the public and private sectors, religious bodies and international organizations, contains measures for reintegration and education continuity for imprisoned people. The programme Yo Cambio (I Change), established in 2011 and generalized in 2015, operates like a vocational college. Inmates enrol in the course of their choice, giving them a second chance. Despite this progress, studies in El Salvador show that public annual expenditure per student is much lower for those in prisons, than for students attending the regular education system.

In Honduras, about 4,000 inmates receive education through three programmes: the Educatodos programme (in 16 prisons), Alfasic (in 8 prisons) and the public school at the Támara National Penitentiary Centre. However, civil society organizations have raised questions over the fact that inmates, rather than trained teachers, teach each other and textbooks are not provided.

Still much to be done

Despite the progress made, imprisoned youth are still facing a problematic reality, especially in relation to their right to education. In many countries, laws and programmes guaranteeing the right to education in prisons have not been fully implemented, specifically trained staff and teachers are scarce, curricula are insufficiently adapted, textbooks and learning material not always available, institutionalised violence is pervasive, and financial resources insufficient. As a result, as a study comprising prisons in 8 major cities in Latin America shows, approximately 30% or more of imprisoned youth is not receiving formal education despite being under the formal protection of the state. Despite its complexities, the right to education should be guaranteed to all imprisoned youth. We must include all youth: all means all.



  1. Absolutely! Savings to taxpayers, and long-term contributions to the safety and well-being of the communities to which formerly incarcerated people return. They deserve education as well.

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