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Boston College School of Social Work
Center for Social Innovation


How Do You Innovate at a Prison?

Chile Innovation Team
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).

By Alissa Marchant, Elyse Casey, Julia MacMahon, and Katherine Germak

When we signed up as four social work graduate students to a Chilean Context course at Boston College, we did not expect to spend two weeks working with the largest women’s prison in Chile. Yet in mid-July in collaboration with Pontificia Universidad Catόlica de Chile (PUC), we found ourselves within the unheated walls of the Penitenciario de San Joaquin assessing mother-child attachment.

Prisons flourished under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and Chile’s democracy is still in its early stages. It was necessary to find an advocate within the prison; to engage mothers, families, and guards in the conversation about change at the prison; and to bring in outside research and present solutions to not only support mother-child attachment, but to work within Chile’s austere prison environment.

We learned that the best way to innovate in this environment was to:

1. Find an advocate

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 identified particular concerns for mother-child attachment within the visitation process. Her main priorities 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. 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.

2. Incorporate all stakeholders into the process

Our social work training has taught us that personal experiences and priorities differ based on one’s role within the system, and that each stakeholder’s perspective must have a voice in improving mother-child attachment for change to be effective. To understand the needs of all stakeholders, we held focus groups with mothers alone, mothers with their children, families, and guards. We learned how to extract pertinent information through our coursework and classroom practice utilizing creative community engagement tools. We were impressed with the openness of the people we met with, despite us being foreigners and strangers to their experiences. Women openly shared their greatest wishes for a visit with their children, and ideas for change, such as allowing a diaper change during a visit. Children drew pictures of dancing and playsets detailing their ideal visit and spoke about the confusing and frightening aspects of visiting their mothers. Guards shared their opinions of the visitation process and detailed their challenging schedules and the change they hoped to see.

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. This flexibility allowed us to gather the most genuine opinions and suggestions to inform the next steps in our process to improve mother-child attachment at the prison.

3. Take small steps, but prepare for the future

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. We knew change at the prison can be a lengthy and challenging process, and 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 they will be able to envision the transformation process as more realistic and less idealistic. Structuring our recommendations in this way helps to make the transformation process seem less overwhelming, providing guidance and options that can be taken to improve mother-child attachment.

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 post is an excerpt from a course blog 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 Pontificia 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.