Final Reflection: How do you innovate at a prison?

An excerpt of this post was published on the Innovate @ BC Social Work Blog.

A prison, which is typically thought of as having rigid rules and strict hierarchy, may not be the ideal environment to innovate. When you consider that Chilean democracy is still in its infancy stages from the dictatorship period of Agosto Pinochet, innovating within this structure may be even more challenging. Yet in mid-July, this is what our team of Boston College School of Social Work students set out to do in Santiago, Chile. In collaboration with Pontifica Universidad Catόlica de Chile (PUC), we sought innovative solutions to improve mother-child attachment during the visitation process at the Penitenciario de San Joaquin, the largest women’s prison in Chile.

Our approach to finding and presenting solutions to the prison had to work within the Chilean context, be acceptable for the austerity of a prison, and still create sustainable new solutions to the issue of attachment. The following steps worked for us as we set out to innovate at San Joaquin:

1.    Find an advocate

The team working with the Penitenciario de San Joaquin. From left to right: Alissa Marchant (BCSSW), Javiera Contreras (PUC), Katherine Germak (BCSSW), Jessica Reyes (Gendarmaria at the prison), Julia MacMahon (BCSSW), and Elyse Casey (BCSSW).
The team working with the Penitenciario de San Joaquin. From left to right: Alissa Marchant (BCSSW), Javiera Contreras (PUC), Katherine Germak (BCSSW), Jessica Reyes (Gendarmaria at the prison), Julia MacMahon (BCSSW), and Elyse Casey (BCSSW).

We were invited into the prison through an existing relationship between PUC and Jessica Rivas, the lead guard in the prison’s largest section, the Center for Education and Work.  Ms. Rivas had worked with the school to identify particular concerns within the visitation process. The main priorities for the prison included improving the visitation process for children of inmates, smoothing out discrepancies in their visitation policies, and promoting a visitation space and process that can benefit both mother and child. She recognized that prison policies and procedures can do more to assuage the challenges of the visitation experience for children and increase the opportunity for healthy mother-child attachment. Perhaps more importantly, Ms. Rivas understood that in order for true change to take place, she would need to get further evidence and buy-in from other prison officials, from low-level guards to state-level decision makers.

Once inside the prison walls, our group quickly learned how important Ms. Rivas’ support for our project would be. Her desire to truly understand the problem and identify workable solutions was a rarity in an environment that is under-resourced and where both inmates and guards are under constant stress. Put simply, Ms. Rivas was key to making the issues facing mothers and families a top priority.  Furthermore, her status in the prison gave our group an incredible amount of access to the primary stakeholders, including inmates, their families, and individual guards.

In addition to Ms. Rivas, our group also benefited from an external advocate, Nieves Edwards of Puentes UC (Bridges UC), a community engagement program at PUC that builds long-term collaborations with local agencies to aid student learning. Nieves was able to provide so much context for our work because she had already built relationships within the prison through her work supporting a design student who was also looking at the visitation issue. She accompanied us throughout our time at the prison, providing invaluable insight and helping us to ask the right questions and speak to the right people.

2.    Incorporate all stakeholders into the process

The child of an incarcerated mother participating in an Actions Centered activity to share her thoughts about the visitation process.
The child of an incarcerated mother participating in an Actions Centered activity to share her thoughts about the visitation process.

Prisons are complex institutions where priorities and personal experiences differ based on one’s role within the system. We anticipated that there might be different priorities between the guards and the incarcerated women, and it was important for us to recognize this gap and incorporate each stakeholder’s opinions into how we defined the problem and our ultimate recommendations. We believed change improving mother-child attachment would only be effective if everyone had stake and a voice in that change. It was important for us to understand the desires and needs everyone involved in the prison – mothers, families, children, and guards of all levels – in order to enact change in the visitation process.To hear the opinion of stakeholders, we held focus groups with mothers, mothers with their children, families, and guards in order to gather information that only they could provide. We were very deliberate in operating under the assumption that these stakeholders are the sole experts and we were only there to listen and learn from them. The focus groups provided us with a wealth of knowledge that we could not gain from online research or even casual conversation within the prison. Women’s hopes, fears, greatest wishes for a visit with their children, and ideas for change in the visitation process were shared openly and candidly with us, despite us being foreigners and strangers to their experiences. Children drew pictures detailing their ideal visit and shared with us the parts of the visitation process that were the most exciting and also the most frightening. Guards shared their opinions of the visitation process, how invested they were in improving conditions for mother-child attachment and how they would change the visitation process if they were in charge. We learned how to extract this information through our coursework and classroom practice utilizing creative community engagement tools. Flexibility was essential in gathering this detailed and personal information. The tools we had prepped served us well, but working in a culturally competent manner meant we followed the stakeholders’ lead. Ultimately, we used only half of the activities we had planned and relied on informal interviews and art-based directives when needed, adapting our plans in the moment. This flexibility allowed us to gather the most genuine opinions and suggestions to inform our detailed recommendations for mother-child attachment at the prison inclusive of everyone’s needs and wishes.

3.    Take small steps, but prepare for the future

The view of the most invasive part of the security process, where families are strip-searched before being allowed to enter the prison to visit with their family member.
The view of the most invasive part of the security process, where families are strip-searched before being allowed to enter the prison to visit with their family member.

We made the decision to structure our formal recommendations to the prison on a time spectrum, mapping each recommendation as a short-, medium-, or long-term option. Since change at the prison can be a lengthy and challenging process, we wanted to highlight certain changes that may be feasible in the near future, as well as those that may take several years to develop. In this way, stakeholders may realize that certain elements of change are possible now, and help them to envision the transformation process as more realistic and less idealistic. Structuring our recommendations in this way also helps to make the transformation process seem less overwhelming, providing guidance on small steps that can be taken to improve mother-child attachment.

While we cannot share all of our recommendations in the brevity of this post, one of the prominent barriers to mother-child attachment we encountered at the prison is the distress of the visitation process for children. Informed by the opinions gathered during the focus groups of stakeholders and our own research of evidence-based literature, we proposed a goal to improve this issue by establishing a predictable and positive environment at the prison. A short-term recommendation for this goal was to distribute a clear and consistent list of rules that indicate food and clothing restrictions at the prison. This would give visitors an idea of what they can and cannot bring in, which would help to make the visitation process smoother and more predictable. One of our medium-term recommendations for this goal was to ensure regular supervision and staff meetings for the guards. This would help the guards to have ample support and feedback as to what they are doing well and what they can improve in their work that will help make the prison environment more positive. Lastly, a long-term recommendation for this goal was to provide training for the guards on human development and the importance of attachment between mothers and children. The guards informed us that they receive basic training in psychology, which was not inclusive of theories of attachment. This long-term recommendation would involve a more intensive shift in practice at the prison, but could be essential in setting a framework that improves the prison environment in a way that fosters healthy attachment and childhood development.

Innovation does not conclude with an idea and recommendations; it must happen in the implementation as well. In the coming months, Dr. Stephanie Berzin, Humberto Camarena, and Katherine Germak at the Center for Social Innovation at BCSSW will continue to correspond with leaders from the prison to elaborate on these recommendations and to see some come to fruition. This has been an invaluable learning experience, and we are gratified to have the opportunity to participate in a process of innovation that will improve mother-child attachment at at least one prison in Chile.

Written by Alissa Marchant, Elyse Casey, Julia MacMahon, and Katherine Germak, students of the Community Development for Innovation course at Boston College School of Social Work (BCSSW).

The Community Development for Innovation: The Chilean Context course integrated students from BCSSW and Pontifica Universidad Catόlica de Chile (PUC). Students participated in four pre-departure seminars covering theory and practical tools for community development before traveling for two weeks to Santiago, where students worked with one of three partner NGOs to implement several of these community development in assistance to an NGO-defined problem.


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