Saskia Niño de Rivera is the co-founder and spokesperson of Reinserta, a non-profit organization whose mission is to break cycles of crime and curb recidivism in Mexico through the power of social reintegration and readaptation. Reinserta works with children of incarcerated parents, especially those born and raised in prison, and adolescent and juvenile offenders, as well as survivors of violent crimes.
Before founding Reinserta, Saskia worked in the kidnapping division of the federal government, which exposed her to “the reality of the prisons in [her] country”, and led her to the realizations that would become the backbone of her organization. Namely, that the creation of a safer country is impossible without taking into account “the prison system and what happens inside of it”, as well as the correlation between inequality and crime.
In our interview, we discussed these realizations and how they inspired Reinserta, as well the impact of being born and growing up in prison on children, and how the organization intervenes to support them. Saskia also contextualized socio-political resistance to alternatives to incarceration in Mexico, and described the machismo within the criminal justice system, and the resulting double criminalization, and even incarceration, of innocent mothers.
Within this context, she shared her vision of the way forward to change a broken criminal justice system. Naturally, we also explored Reinserta’s work with the social rehabilitation of adolescents and juveniles in contact with the criminal justice system, both in penitentiary centers, and at their own social reintegration center. And last, but not least, Saskia explained the mechanisms Reinserta uses to monitor and evaluate all of its work.
What inspired you to start Reinserta?
“Many things inspired me, so I couldn’t name just one source of inspiration. But the tip of the iceberg was definitely working in the kidnapping division for the federal government, and seeing the reality of the prisons in my country. It just made sense to me that there was no way that you could bet on a safer country if you’re not looking at the prison system and what happens inside it. It was like a no-brainer for me.”
Saskia shared that pre-Reinserta, her first big project was a personality profiling of kidnappers in Mexico, in which she worked with 800 kidnappers. She found that the common denominators across their stories were hardship, violence and poverty. She emphasized that taking these circumstances into account is not an attempt to justify crime, but rather to understand “that there was a point in their life where we have failed as a society.” Saskia believes that these points are “where we really have to look at how we create justice and how we come about a real justice system.”
The more Saskia learned “about the justice system and how we were defining justice, and how politicians were aligning themselves with a very existential kind of security – more cameras, more policemen on the streets,” the more questions arose.
“What’s the real deal? Where’s the real problem? Why are people committing crimes and what are people going through that is impeding them from social readaptation? And have we failed as a nation and as a society towards certain people?”
Reinserta is Saskia’s response to these questions, an approach which she considers “going back to basics.”
“We believe that most people that are in prison have been part of a violent society, so we need to start preventing and taking care of those that are in contact with a violent society. Because they were born in that society, because there are social consequences to being born in certain areas which have that reality. And that is where we need to really start to protect them.
So Reinserta today works with children, girls, boys and teenagers that are in contact with violence and the criminal justice system. We work with children that are born and raised in prison, children that have their parents in prison, teenagers that are in conflict with the law, like juvenile offenders. And we also work with children that are survivors of really violent crimes. What we’ve seen is that people who commit crimes often have this kind of background.”
How does being born and growing up in prison impact children?
“Prison is a violent space by nature. You’ve put together criminals or alleged criminals in a space where they are not close to their families, where they are not free to come and go as they please.
Children that are born and raised in prison have different realities, and every case is super different. You might have a case of a mother who is drug-free, violence-free, innocent, who was pregnant when she got arrested. She could probably be a great mother, even a much better mother than a lot of women outside.
Or you might have a case of a woman living on the street, suffering from a drug addiction, who is raped and has a child while incarcerated as a consequence of rape. That’s a different case of a mother and her child born into the prison system. You might have a mother who has a three or four year sentence, who will come out with the child.
In that case, by separating the child, you create the bigger problem of how to put them back together. You might have a mother that is sentenced for life, in which case the question is about the reality of the relationship that this mother is going to have with the child.
Despite these differences, growing up in prison means not being able to develop in a safe environment or just a free environment. We saw that some kids have never seen certain colors because they don’t exist in prison. Say a bright pink, or a green. Children are in prison with their mothers, so they sleep with their mothers.
And if the prison system is by 6 o’clock, you’re in your cell and the doors are locked, then you’re a kid that has never seen the nighttime. You’ve never seen the stars. You’re a kid that has never seen a dog, you’ve never seen a tree. You’ve never gotten in a car or on a bus. So there’s a lot of things that we take for granted that children in prison don’t have.”
How does Reinserta intervene to support children born into the prison system?
“It’s really important in the child’s development, and especially its first year, to be close to its mother. So I think it is society’s obligation to create a safe environment for the child to be inside the prison with their mother, without their rights being threatened.
Reinserta wrote the only law in Mexico about the children in prison, which requires prisons to have the physical aspects of a safe area for children, including maternity wards, motherhood dorms, and play areas. We evaluate these requirements and if the prison doesn’t have it, we help create it.
After that, we have Jugar y Crear (Play and Create), our program dedicated to child development inside prison. Given our study on the colors and stimulation kids in prison lack, we create special areas designed with those colors and stimuli, called bebetecas. And then we work with the mothers through a parenting program, where we help mothers be the best version of motherhood that they can be.
What we’ve seen is that most of these women come from a violent situation or upbringing, and they in turn create a violent atmosphere with their children. If the child cries, they hit them. And by virtue of being incarcerated, they are in an inherently tense and violent situation as well. So we help the mothers develop better mothering techniques, teaching alternatives to violence and neglect.
So we go through the upbringing of a child, through both these programs, and then we have the Maternidad Compartida (Shared Motherhood) program. The reality is most of these women are going to stay in prison and the child is going to come out. So where is the child going to go? Who will they grow up with? Will they go to an orphanage or with a family member? What’s the relationship going to be between mother and child?
And how is the mother going to work with the limitations of being in prison? Say, if your kid turns 12 or 14, and they’re not going to school, or they’re doing drugs or misbehaving, or they’re pissed and don’t want to come see you. What can you do from prison? You can only grab the phone and call them.
But if they don’t answer, there’s not much you can do. So who’s going to be that parent authority outside? We figure all this out together through the shared motherhood program.
We also create a community, to gradually bring the child outside before they have to leave the prison permanently. That way they can come in and out for a period of time, instead of having the huge shock of suddenly coming out for the first time.”
You mentioned the importance of “[creating] a safe environment for the child to be inside the prison with their mother, without their rights being threatened.” Personally, especially in the cases of mothers incarcerated pre-trial, house arrest immediately comes to mind as a more just and viable scenario in which to do this. So why isn’t house arrest used as an alternative to prison in such cases?
Saskia emphasized the fact that the criminal justice system in Mexico “doesn’t work” contributes to people’s fear for their safety, which makes the social acceptance of alternatives to incarceration very limited. Especially since this fear leads to anger, which politicians then exploit.
“We’re salmon swimming against the current. We talk about creating justice and how vengeance is not an option for justice, the need to rebuild the prison and justice system, how the problem is corruption and impunity…
On the other hand, you have senators pushing for more years of prison for people who commit crimes, for the expansion of the number of crimes punished with mandatory pretrial detention. One of the first laws that this president made was to expand crimes facing mandatory pretrial detention.
This also ties the hands of the justice system. If for a robbery of X amount you have to go to prison pretrial, then you have to do your entire process from inside prison.
There’s also a very machista environment in the justice system, where women are double criminalized, especially as mothers. There’s this one case that we’re working on, of a policewoman, whose husband killed their seven year old. She came home from work one day, and her husband and son had gone to the hospital.When she got to the hospital, the son was dead and they arrested her.
And when she proved that she was at work, and not even at the crime scene, she was given a 12 year sentence, because her ‘obligation’ as a woman and as a mother was to take care of her son. The judge literally said it that way: ‘you were supposed to take care of your son’. So she is facing 12 years of prison? She didn’t kill him. She wasn’t even there.
We have cases of mothers in really violent relationships, where the father kills the son or the daughter. In one case, a father was hitting the daughter, and the mom was there and didn’t intervene because she was in this violent context. When she realized the daughter had stopped breathing, she flipped, but she was afraid to call the cops, because she was there when it happened. She didn’t do anything, and she was given a bigger sentence than the man because her ‘obligation as a woman’ was to protect the daughter.
If you have a mother that robbed five hundred dollars or a thousand dollars and she has five kids who depend on her, don’t put her in prison for 12 years. Put her in house arrest and have the kids be close to her. But again, when you have a justice system that doesn’t work, the social acceptance of alternatives to incarceration is very limited.”
This is the hardest question because there’s no straightforward answer. But what do you see as the solution? What is the way forward to change the criminal justice system?
“There’s not one solution because we have to talk about prevention in all aspects, but I think a solution is really having politicians that are not scared to look at the justice system from a different angle. I was reading this really interesting article on whether police even exist.
Are policemen supposed to ensure peace in society? Or how do we create a society based on citizens? We need the justice-is-not-the-same-as-vengeance speech to prevail in politicians in order for change to come about. And we need a really hard core, anti-corruption policy towards authorities in the criminal justice system.”
What is Reinserta’s approach to the social rehabilitation of adolescents and juvenile offenders?
Before breaking down Reinserta’s model for juvenile offenders, and its two parts, Saskia emphasized that the overall approach is “focused on reducing [risk] factors that make it more likely for adolescents to commit crimes”. She counted drug use, violent home environments, and a lack of education amongst such factors.
“Our approach is a model with two phases, made up of consecutive programs. The first program, Programa de Reinserción Social para Adolescentes y Jóvenes en Internamiento (Social Reintegration Program for Adolescents and Youth in Detention), is aimed at adolescents and young people who are serving their sentence, so its activities are implemented in the penitentiary centers.
It seeks to promote the development, reinforcement and implementation of skills that will allow them to successfully reintegrate into their communities upon release from prison. The program is framed by the areas of Mental Health, Work Skills and Art, Culture and Sports.
And the work we carry out in the detention centers allows us to capture the attention of adolescents so that those who are interested in continuing with their process of social reintegration in liberty, once their sentence has been fulfilled, can join our reintegration center [the second phase and program].
Saskia prefaced her explanation of the reintegration center with an acknowledgement that “the most difficult part of the process is the social aspect.”
“We don’t work with families, for example, because what we’ve learned is that the families are part of the problem from the start. But we do work on independent living, because most of our children were just re-victimized when we had family therapy and the family never showed up.
But in the majority of our cases, the juvenile offenders were incarcerated by the age of 15 or 16, and were given a 2-3 year sentence. This means they are 18 or 19 when they come out, so we are in a position to work with them independently, as adults.”
It is at this turning point that the Centro de Reinserción para Adolescentes y Jóvenes (Reintegration Center for Adolescents and Youth), known as CRAJ, “provides continuity to the internamiento program.”
“Through our center, we serve adolescents and young people who seek a reintegration process after having been part of the prison system, or while they are completing treatment measures in liberty. The CRAJ operates through 5 axes of intervention: Labor Habilitation, Education, Mental Health and Well-being, Restorative Justice and Self-care, and each participant has an individualized intervention plan adjusted to their specific needs that will help them to achieve a successful societal reintegration.
You established independent living as a primordial aspect of social rehabilitation for juvenile offenders, the majority of whom come out of prison as legal adults. Could you further define “independent living” and explain how it works?
“We define independent living as the capacity of adolescents to be autonomous and to manage all aspects of their lives once they leave the penitentiary centers. Institutionalization diminishes youth’s development of autonomy, so when they leave it is necessary to accompany them in this process, which implies giving them the necessary tools to manage their money once they start working, to learn time management, to mobilize on their own, and to establish self-care routines, among other things.
Sometimes it is also necessary to guide them regarding the completion of procedures and obtaining official documents to continue with their studies or to join work environments.”
Finally, how does Reinserta monitor and evaluate its social reintegration and readaptation models and programs?
“Well, our main donor is the US government, so the US government brings in an auditor every year. Independently, all of our programs have an evaluation scheme, to measure impact and whether the program is working. We don’t have a single program, not even a diaper donation program, that is not measured by impact.
For example, we evaluate our program for juvenile offenders when it starts, while it is taking place, and once it is finishing. We consider social factors, such as whether the child we work with is able to control their violent impulses, before, during, after the program. We have different indicators for children.
For example, with babies: is the child able to crawl? Are they able to detect certain colors? We also have protocols and indicators for the prisons themselves. Does the area have these books? Does the area have these toys? Does the area have these safety factors?
And every year, we do at least one investigation. So this year, it’s on children that are recruited by organized crime in Mexico. We did this study with 60 testimonies of children recruited by organized crime in Mexico. We will present it in August or September, it’s going to be really interesting.”
What have been Reinserta’s biggest successes in its campaign to break cycles of crime and promote social reintegration?
First of all, even creating an organization that talks about these problems and these realities is a success in and and of itself. In the past 8 years, we have put a lot of things that were not talked about on the map. Raising awareness is a huge goal that we have met. Creating the law for children was also a big success, as well as our social readaptation program for juvenile offenders, and really all the investigations and programs we created.
As the founder of an organization with the recognition of both the relationship between crime and inequality, and the prison system’s role in perpetuating cycles of crime baked into its very DNA, Saskia is a trailblazer. Reinserta rejects the militarization of public safety and vengeance as justice as “solutions” to violence and insecurity in Mexico, as well as the dehumanization of those in contact with the criminal justice system. Instead, the organization works with “invisible” children and “written-off” adolescents” to build a better future for them, and for their country.
Laura is a senior at the University of California, Los Angeles, pursuing a major in Spanish and Portuguese. Her passion for Latina America first stemmed from her personal connection to Brazil. Although she was born and raised in Europe, her mother is Brazilian, and she is a native Portuguese speaker who grew up frequently visiting Brazil, and considering it home. As a high schooler, Laura developed a keen interest in social problems, and specifically the role of NGOs in working towards their solution. She had the opportunity to volunteer at an educational NGO in Paraísopolis, a favela in São Paulo, over two summers, an experience which highlighted the discrepancy between the reality of favelas and their sensationalized depictions in the media, as well as the underreported work of individuals within the community to create educational opportunities despite their socio-political marginalization. Laura’s study of Spanish throughout middle and high school piqued her curiosity about Latin America beyond Brazil, and once in college, she embraced the opportunity to further connect with her Brazilian heritage, while diving into the greater region academically, studying its history, cultures, literature, art, and social problems. As a Latin American Correspondent, Laura hopes to bring stories about the intersection of art, resistance, and social change to the forefront, as well as to highlight non-profit organizations, entrepreneurs and community leaders working to solve social problems in the region.