Date of Degree

9-2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Criminal Justice

Advisor

Jeff Mellow

Committee Members

Lila Kazemian

Mark Ungar

Andres Rengifo

David Skarbek

Subject Categories

Criminology | Latin American Studies

Keywords

Prison, prison reform, criminal justice, human rights, Latin America, Dominican Republic

Abstract

This project explores the implementation of reforms to the prison system in the Dominican Republic, with an emphasis on how incarcerated people perceive their conditions and daily life in confinement. In 2003, the Dominican Republic established a New Prison Management Model, focused on international human rights standards and rehabilitation. This model now manages over half of the prison facilities and a third of the incarcerated population, while the previous, “traditional” model continues to operate in tandem. The “new” and reformed facilities (Centers for Correction and Rehabilitation) feature new buildings, programs, and correctional officer staff with multi-disciplinary training. In contrast, the “old” prisons are overcrowded barracks with deteriorated infrastructure, few programs, and limited police or military officers as guards. In the old prisons, a co-governance arrangement prevails, in which prisoner representatives and prison staff negotiate power and authority to manage daily operations and social order. In contrast, in the new prisons, the new corrections professionals have formal management of all aspects of daily life.

The Dominican New Model has a high international profile, but this is the first study that goes beyond documenting basic facility conditions and programs and also considers the gaps between policy and practice. It analyzes incarcerated people’s experiences and perceptions of dignity, respect, autonomy, and prospects for positive reintegration in both types of prisons. Through a mixed-methods approach, using an adaptation of the Measuring the Quality of Prison Life (MQPL) framework, this study draws on a survey of 1,240 men incarcerated in 17 different facilities (traditional and new), 158 interviews with incarcerated people, prison staff, and other stakeholders, and official data.

Incarcerated men in traditional and new prisons – and many have been in both -- have mixed views about the reform process. They value two principal elements of the New Model: better and more equal basic living conditions and amenities and more programs that come with formal credentials. But they also resent what they see as excessive restrictions on daily activities and individual autonomy. Further, shortages in basic supplies and incidents of violence by correctional officers contravene the rules and public claims of the New Model, generating cynicism among incarcerated people. In the traditional prisons, there is severe deprivation and inequality – but many people appreciate the chance to earn money in the relatively unregulated prison economy. They also value the role of the prisoner-led governance committee because it allows them a sense of voice and participation.

Overall, this study argues that the major accomplishments of the New Prison Model in shifting public discourse, improving conditions, and building strong staff training and programs are diluted and sometimes undermined by the strict, opaque, and top-down governance strategies. More broadly, the Dominican prison reform experience demonstrates the importance of going beyond blueprints or “international minimum standards” to understand and track how institutional reforms influence the social climate in prisons and incarcerated people’s sense of autonomy, participation, and dignity.

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