A version of this article originally appeared on VICE en Español.
Daniel Marconi removes the new blade from its packaging and, with as much dexterity as his thick, sausage-like fingers will allow, the barber slides it into the hilt of the knife. “Are you sure you don’t want your eyebrows done as well?” he asks me, laughing. “I do them with thread, it’s beautiful.” He wets a brush and rubs it against the bar of soap in gentle circular movements until foam accumulates in the brass bowl. “It’ll be a bit cold, but not that bad.”
He drags the blade across the surface of my soaped-up face as the rest of the barber shop—comprised of a group of young men with tattoos and well-defined eyebrows—watches attentively. They’re Marconi’s apprentices, and he doesn’t disappoint: he shaves my face with precision, taking time between deft motions to tell jokes or offer a botched rendition to a cumbia song. “In a bit, once we’re with the whole group, you’ll hear how it sounds, you’ll see,” he warns, wiping off the leftover soap with a flannel rag. In addition to cutting hair, Marconi is the lead singer of a tropical music band that meets every afternoon to rehearse. If it weren’t for the fact that Marconi is serving time for violent robbery and that we’re currently inside a prison, this might seem like a scene out of a quaint period novel.
It’s easy to forget that you’re inside a prison when you walk around the almost 100 acres that make up Unit Six of Punta de Rieles in the Uruguayan capital city of Montevideo. I’ve been to other prisons in Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia, and the only thing they have in common with this one is the name, the strict searches at the entrance, and the formalities at reception. Fear, anguish, overcrowding, and violence aren’t anywhere to be seen here—at least not to the naked eye. There are few guards and even fewer bars, and the armed sentries appear to be dying of boredom in their watchtowers, the cell blocks wide open. In the morning, inmates at Punta de Rieles wake up much like you’d expect in any other town in Uruguay: a group of boys sit in a circle, drinking mate, the herbal infusion rich in caffeine, to warm up; others groggily play with a ball by the square; a few men ready their drums for band practice; and some come and go, carrying out the day’s duties and leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.
Not only does Punta de Rieles look like a town, but it works like one. Of the nearly 500 inmates imprisoned here, the majority have jobs. Some work for the prison, tending to and maintaining its facilities, but others work for cooperatives and businesses that began employing them after they began their sentences.
“We wanted try a different approach,” says Luis Parodi, the director of Punta de Rieles. “Common prisons are always a bad example of socialism because those in charge believe that socialism is for the poor. They implement a punitive system and when [inmates] are released, they face another reality: capitalism. And they have no choice but to reoffend because the State turns its back on them."
Parodi is a friendly, energetic man. He walks us through the property in a t-shirt and jeans, greeting each prisoner individually and often dealing with their complaints right then and there, always making time for laughter. “Everyone greets everyone in the morning here. Everyday. It’s the main rule,” he explains. “If you want to cuss me out later, go ahead. But first we need to greet one another.”
In order to build a facility that more closely resembles the real world, he founded a kind of bank inside Punta de Rieles. “Imagine, I’m left-wing, [and the bank is] about having a common fund that’s regulated by prisoners and officials. There are council elections and everything (for example, I’ve lost in the past). We grant loans for their ventures. If the proposed business doesn’t work, it doesn’t work and that's it. We don’t charge interest or pursue anybody, of course." This means that inmates can re-acclimate to the workforce (or, in many cases, experience employment for the first time) before they’ve even left confinement. Some examples of inmate ventures that have been successful are the printing press, the workshops, the bakery (which employs 150 people), and a couple of concrete block-making businesses. All of them help the communal fund, ensuring that it can continue to exist and support new projects.
Because inmates are, under Uruguayan law, unable to handle money, their earnings are deposited in a bank account for family savings and expenses, or used on internal purchases like commissary products, warehouse services, the restaurant, bakery, or Marconi’s barbershop. “Being in prison causes a lot of anguish. There's [often] nothing more than that, so we have to find a way to make confinement beneficial and not just a punishment. The authorities are here to help people grow. That’s not my idea, that’s [Fernando] Savater’s,” Parodi says, in reference to the Spanish philosopher.
The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once wrote that all children in the country come into the world shouting “goal,” and Parodi was no exception. In his youth, he was a soccer player for Liverpool; today, he runs a modest club in the Belvedere neighborhood of Montevideo, not far from Punta de Rieles.
“I got as far as playing in the pre-Olympics, in the under-20s group,” he recalls. I asked him what position he played. “What do you think, man? The tenth position [support striker].”
The son of a railway syndicalist, Parodi demonstrated an early passion for leftist ideology in addition to the soccer ball. During the Uruguayan Dictatorship (which lasted from 1973 to 1985), he was a Tupamaro (an urban guerilla), which drove him to leave the country. He spent close to 12 years in exile in France, which is where he began learning about pedagogy. Upon his return to Uruguay in 1985, he participated in educational programs, first with the INAU (Institute for Children and Adolescents of Uruguay) and later, in 2010, in the innovative model of Punta de Rieles, which was directed by Rolando Arbesún at the time.
Before the new model, Punta de Rieles functioned as a military prison for women from 1973 to 1985. It was a dark period in the country: according to official estimates, more than 600 women were imprisoned there during the civil-military dictatorship. It was the largest intelligence and detention center in the country at the time, one where many atrocities were committed.
Today, it offers a different reality: the inmates work, start projects, and learn. Many of them are finishing secondary school, others pursuing advanced studies. Some of them do theater, play music, or spend hours working on the online radio project they’ve launched since becoming incarcerated. Yoga has proven a transformative force in many of their lives: The inmates are working on a collective effort to raise enough money to build a meditation center next to the main square where Parodi organizes assemblies, a kind of public forum where decisions are made as a group.
The Punta de Rieles model appears to be more effective than traditional punitive methods, if available statistics are to be believed: the percentage of inmates who reoffend hovers between 2 and 3 percent as opposed to an estimated 60 percent at the rest of the prisons in the region, according to the Uruguayan Ministry of the Interior. But if it's so low, why hasn’t this model been implemented in other prisons in Uruguay?
"What we provide here is not 'rehabilitation.' The inmates aren’t sick. We’ve given them agency to work things out, to discuss and listen to one another,” Parodi says, adding that some outside the prison consider this approach controversial. "People are outraged if an inmate has a TV or if any small privileges. They say, ‘Why should a thief or a rapist be able to have the same as me when I break my back to have what I have?'—[but they don’t realize that inmates] break their backs too. It’s the same. People don’t want to face their problems; they prefer punishment."
Off in the distance, Marconi’s long figure appears. With the help of his pupils, he’s carrying drums to the rehearsal room. He waves at us and taps his index finger against his wrist where there is no watch, as if to signal that the time for cumbia has arrived. The sun begins to sink, painting the clear Uruguayan sky various shades of pink and purple.
It's quite picturesque for a prison. "All in all, man, this is a balcony in a basement. Don’t forget that," Parodi says. From the rehearsal building, an out of tune trumpet sounds.