SANTA ANA, EL SALVADOR — For many around the world, a jail sentence represents a point of no return as those behind bars are often discarded by society. That is far from the case for a program in El Salvador named “Yo Cambio” (“I Change”), where inmates are not called inmates, but rather privados de libertad (deprived of liberty). That nomenclature alone is already a self-esteem booster.
“Yo Cambio” functions like a vocational junior college where inmates are enrolled in a program of their choice or one that matches their vocation or experience—representing a second chance at life. In a country like El Salvador, this idea did find resistance at first by higher-ranking officials who were skeptical of how much freedom and trust the inmates would be getting. Still, the program has taken off and could easily be considered a case study for many countries around the world.
On the day these photos were taken, the jail was having a karaoke competition, which the press was invited to attend. The winners would join a music group.
“This is our local, in house band formed by inmates,” explained former director Lic. María Isabel Baños. The music band was so impressive and professional, that reporters were asking if this band had been brought in for the special occasion.
The program was introduced by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) administration when a school teacher became the director of the penitentiary and soon, he saw the need for teaching trades to inmates. The teacher implemented the slogan “El que sabe enseña al que no sabe” (“he who knows, teaches those who don’t”).
Inmates get to practice yoga, and learn painting, fish hatchery, fragrance and soap manufacturing. They form soccer teams, learn nursery, and raise chickens that produce eggs. The program even has a gourmet culinary program as well as a full bakery.
Eulises Cornejo Sánchez (AKA Don Conejo) has been in the program for four years. Upon his arrival, he did not know how to write or read. Now, he writes poetry. He even wrote a poem dedicated to Monseñor Romero, an iconic figure in the country’s modern history.
A university in San Salvador has published Eulises’ books, including one that depicts the civil war. The book also talks about tears for the current gang violence that Salvadorans live under. Eulises, now 61, went from being illiterate to becoming published author.
“My parents were poor. They couldn’t afford to send me to school so I never learned to read or write. I signed up for the program, and now I’m a poet,” Eulises told Latino Rebels. His vocabulary is now that equivalent to a college student, and he has become a living example that it is never too late to get an education or to become a writer. He added, “When I gain my freedom back, I will dedicate my life to literature”.
The program got its start in 2011 by Lic. Molina Rio, who at the time was the Apanteos jail director. It was gradually implemented before it became official in 2015 by the FMLN President Sánchez Cerén, whose term will end on May 31. Cerén himself is a former guerrilla fighter and a teacher by profession.
“The program included English, Mandarin, and Japanese classes,” said the new Director Giovany Cartagena, also a teacher. The Apanteos “Yo Cambio” program was previously run by Lic. Baños, a middle-aged woman who had earned the respect and trust of the inmates.
According to Cartagena, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Elizabeth Manes has visited the jail on numerous occasions to verify that U.S. aid is being used for such programs. When asked about the recent decision of the Trump administration to cut aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, Cartagena said that “we are thankful for the aid and it is important that a portion of that aid goes to programs like this one to curve violence.”
Although the program is mainly conducted for less violent crime offenders, according to Cartagena, a pilot program is currently in progress for violent crime offenders such as gang members.
“One of the conditions for those that are gang members is that they will have to resign from being members of a gang,” said Cartagena.
The inmate in charge of the fish hatchery (who wanted to remain anonymous) said that he “redeemed his sentence by eight years, that means, eight years were taking away from my sentence for doing well in this program”. He added that “when I go back to society, I’d like to open my own fish hatchery business”. The Apanteos jail has three pools where fish hatchery is produced—the funds obtained by all the sales of all products go to the improvement of the facility and the purchasing of materials, supplies and tools, according to the jail director.
The men housed in these jails also get do clean-up work at the beach. The music band is also hired to sing in public at the beaches during the peak season.
Cartagena said that part of the success of the program is the screening that is done prior to the inmates moving from a regular jail to the “Yo Cambio” program.
During the original interview “the values [trades and skills] of the person are evaluated, the person is then matched with a program comparable to his skills, or a new training program is created with the knowledge that that person has,” said Cartagena.
Some of the programs include dance groups and comedic plays as well as maintenance skills and high school classes. Recently, 40 inmates obtained their high school diplomas.
With so many programs being presented, and the low presence of security personnel, it is easy for visitors to forget that they are touring a jail system and not a vocational school. People housed there don’t wear the traditional striped or orange jail uniforms. They all wear white pants and t-shirts along with sneakers. People wearing yellow are part of the maintenance workforce.
“Our duty is to give them [the inmates] room to rehabilitate. Our role as administrators is to prepare them in a way that when released, they can incorporate to society in a natural way so that they won’t hurt society again,” Cartagena said.
With Nayib Bukele being sworn as the country’s new president on June 1, there are concerns that this revolutionary program will end.
“My message to the new president is for him to come see us, to see what the program is about, to support the program,” Cartagena said. “We are a small country that wants to give a lesson to the big nations.”
Francisco Lozano is a freelance news photographer based in Los Angeles. You can follow him @FrancisLozano7.