Prison Education Programmes for Young People and Adults

Country Profile: Uruguay


3,344,938 (2009)

Official Languages


Adult Literacy Rate (15 years and over, 1995-2004)

Total: 98.2% (2008)
Male: 97.8%
Female: 98.5%

Total Expenditure on Education as % of GNP

2.8% (2006)

Total Youth Literacy Rate (15-24 years)

99% (2008)

Programme Overview

Programme TitlePrison Education Programmes for Young People and Adults
Implementing OrganizationAdministración Nacional de Educación Pública y su Consejo Directivo Central (ANEP – CODICEN) National Authorities for Public Education and Central Governing Council
Language of InstructionSpanish
FundingNational government, NGOs
Date of Inception2005–

Context and Background

The number of imprisoned people and the length of prison sentences in Uruguay has sharply increased since 1995 following a national crackdown on crime. Problems of overcrowding in some prisons and the general lack of resources and funding have been exacerbated after the annual rate of imprisoned people per 100,000 inhabitants doubled from 110 to 220 between 1995 and 2005 . A demographic look at the Uruguay’s prison population reveals that more than 60% of imprisoned people are under 30 years old and many have received little or inadequate schooling. A study was commissioned in 2007 to investigate the education levels of people deprived of their liberty across Uruguay. 5,781 individuals were interviewed across the country, which represents over 80% of Uruguay’s total prison population. The results revealed that 40% of prisoners had not completed their primary education and 31% had only completed their primary education and then left the formal education system.

Difficult economic circumstances in 2002 left Uruguay with high poverty incidence rates and led the way to the formation of a National Social Emergency Plan (PANES), which was set up in 2005 in the wake of a change of government. The Ministry for Social Development (MIDES) was created in that same year with the objective of bringing the plan forward and formulating, executing, supervising and evaluating the policies and strategies in the fields of youth, women and the family, the elderly, the disabled and social development.

To address the educational needs of the section of the population previously excluded from their basic education, the Ministry of Education and Culture (Ministerio de Educación y Cultura – MEC) and the National Administration of Public Education (Administración Nacional de Educación Pública - ANEP) jointly undertook the initiative to conduct educational projects inside of prison institutions on a variety of topics and with many different objectives (health, family life, vocational training, literacy skills, social reintegration, etc.).

Following the introduction of the Humanisation of the Penitentiary System Act (Nº 17,897) in 2005, which placed significant emphasis on the benefits of education in prison environments, the scope of education in prisons began to find a stronger source of support and subsequently started to enlarge. Since being established in 2007, the Support Commission for Education in Prisons (CAEC) has been committed to achieving wider and better quality educational coverage in prisons across the country, by means of workshops, courses and literacy programmes for the imprisoned people.

Aims and Objectives

One of the fundamental objectives of the penitentiary system is to work towards the rehabilitation and eventual reinsertion into society of people who are imprisoned. Under the scope of these aims, prison education functions as a means to improve the conditions of imprisonment and represents the stage prior to active rehabilitation. As part of the overarching national Education Programme for Young People and Adults, educational programmes and activities were established in prisons to achieve the following aims:


Programme Coordination

As the prison education system in Uruguay is made up of a variety of projects run by private organisations and public authorities, coordination is of key importance and is carried out by the Support Commission for Prison Education (CAEC). The Commission comprises of members of the Ministry for Education and Culture (MEC), the Department of Education and Further Education in the National Office for Prisons and Rehabilitation Centres and in the National Trust for Current and Released Prisoners (PNEL), the Parliamentary Commissioner, the National Administration of Public Education (ANEP) and an advisor with pedagogical experience specifically in prison education and who is appointed by the committee members.


The Commission is charged with the task of analysing the policies and educational practices in prisons, coordinating actions to improve education methods and conditions, supporting the training of prison staff, particularly those with direct or indirect teaching role, coordinating the links between public and private institutions in order to achieve maximum educational coverage across the country, and maintaining contact with regional and international organisations with similar objectives. Rather than a passive, administrative role, the Commission actively engages with all those involved (teachers, imprisoned people and prison staff). Such interaction has brought to light the hidden reality of life behind bars whilst exposing new topics and concerns for discussion in the area of education and society.

Programme Methodologies and Implementation

Non-formal education in the prisons utilises both formal and non-formal teaching approaches, with possibilities to attend literacy classes, continue with primary or secondary education, access vocational training and take part in workshops, theatre groups, and so on. Activities are planned and carried out with the intention of supporting the development of skills, encouraging group communication and reforming the outlook and social behaviour of the imprisoned people.

The chess project carried out in 2007, “El ajedrez de las cárceles”, provides an example of the common interdisciplinary nature of the prison programmes. The integrated structure of the course encompassed three themed workshops on carpentry (building the chess board), ICT (installing a computer chess game) and journalism (reporting on a chess tournament) to develop various tasks through the development of literacy and practical skills.


In that same year, a pilot project was developed by a team of education professionals and introduced in the men’s prison of the city of Canelones. After consulting a selection of prisoners on their interests and preferences for the workshop, Uruguayan Carnival was adopted as the central theme. On preparing the sessions, literacy and self-directed learning were woven carefully into the curriculum by the team of professionals. The aspects addressed during the workshop were the social self and environment, language development and communication, art and culture (music groups and carnival), history and geographical reviews of similar cultural expressions. The workshop participants were encouraged to deal with standard aspects of life as well as their own experiences, writing and speaking about the reality of their situations and the topics of freedom, hope and time. During the workshops, the participants developed their reading, writing and general communication skills through the embedded literacy components in the programme.

Despite having been planned for only 20 participants, by the third meeting 27 prospective learners had joined the workshop and, in order to guarantee the educational quality of the sessions, no additional participants were admitted. All of the participants completed the four-month long course with full attendance. Originally intended to consist of three meetings a week each lasting three hours, the teachers reported that it was impossible to restrict the meetings to less than four hours at a time due to the magnitude of participation and the scope of interest in the topics.


During the workshop, a space was created where dialogue and debate could flourish and the large diversity of the participants and their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds could be taken into consideration. Playing an fundamental role in engaging the participants, the flexible curriculum encouraged them to use their practical skills and inquisitiveness and fostered the growth of qualities central to the process of lifelong learning. The design, methodologies and foundations of ‘learning to learn’ strategies were employed in order to encourage the development of the participants’ autonomy and self-empowerment. As a result of the use of this approach, participants became actively involved by asking questions on job-related topics. The teachers were able to support the participants by bringing information and holding readings on workers’ rights, resulting in the establishment and evolution of an area of meaningful interaction between the teachers and learners.

The pilot programme and its workshop structure formed the non-formal education programme, Programa Aprender Siempre (Always Learn Programme), which is directed at people over the age of 20 and offers short educational courses. Dealing with many different themes, the programme has since been introduced both inside and outside of prison establishments.


In many prisons, music or theatre groups have been formed often with the support of paid and voluntary workshop instructors. Such occurrences have all been resoundingly successful, with many resulting in the production of shows for the public either in the prisons or in public halls.

In 2005, the largest prison in Uruguay, with half of the country’s prison population, was not equipped with classrooms and, across the country, there were only 9 teaching positions in 5 out of 27 prison establishments. Four years later, in 2009, the positions had risen to 51 covering 25 prisons; a marked improvement, arising from the recognition of the right to education for all and the beneficial effect of education in limiting the number of reoffenders.


The National Agency for Current and Released Prisoners (PNEL) has been supporting educational initiatives by supplying the prisons with a quantity of educational material which corresponds to the number of teachers at the institution. The agency has 19 centres across the country and serves to support imprisoned people, released offenders and their families, placing emphasis on the important role of reinsertion into employment as well as providing social, moral and material assistance.

Programme Monitoring and Evaluation

The teaching teams meet every two weeks to participate in coordination meetings, in which topics such as motivating learners, dealing with prison staff, developing competencies, changes to the curriculum, educational space, etc. are discussed to prompt self-evaluation, pedagogical reflection, and the continuation and support of educational practices. Members of prison authorities attend the meetings from time to time in order to give the teachers a closer insight into how the prison functions and the internal administrative rules which concern them as teachers.

As part of the evaluation of each programme, the teachers send statistical data on a monthly basis to the Central Governing Council. This information is used to analyse the quarterly reports and is shared with the inspectors in order to plan for and predict the specific needs of the learners in each educational context.

In 2008, the Support Commission coordinated the first Special Session, as part of which the teachers, offenders and wardens from one prison were interviewed individually on the weaknesses and strengths of prison education according to their experiences. Such events have since been held in several additional prisons following its valuable contribution to the task of uncovering the realities of prison education.

Recruitment of Learners

An institutional incentive has been introduced across Uruguay which aims to encourage imprisoned people to attend educational programmes (Act Nº 17.897). The act makes it possible for prison sentences to be reduced when imprisoned people engage in regulated educational programmes.Two days of study, with one day equating 6 learning hours, corresponds to a sentence remission of one day.

The possibility to receive accreditation for completing the official level of primary or basic education whilst in prison provides imprisoned people with an incentive to study as they can achieve a specific goal which will be support them with their reintegration into society when they leave prison.

Recruitment and Training of Facilitators

Only qualified teachers are employed to work as teaching staff in the prisons in order to ensure that the quality of teaching remains high and, most importantly, to ensure that each teacher establishes himself or herself as a pedagogical authority rather than a supervisory authority during the programme. Qualified teachers are also preferred when hiring workshop instructors.

A key aspect of the prison education programmes is the regular exchange of ideas and experiences between the teachers during meetings and training days organised by the Support Commission. During the training days, political-educational aspects are examined and educational methodology is discussed. In the past, local ministerial authorities, educational branches, as well as teachers from various education branches have been invited to attend and contribute to the event. The importance of developing areas for pedagogical reflection and interaction with educational professionals is a part of designing common educational projects.

Lessons Learned

Establishing good relations with the prison staff and authorities is of prime importance in order to ensure efficiency and success with the educational programmes. As part of this, the experience and efforts to train prison staff and help them to recognise the importance of education has played a significant role. Since the prison system addresses a much broader set of objectives, including controlling and disciplining the offenders, the task of firmly establishing education as a part of prison life is a difficult, and yet invaluable, undertaking which requires constant backing from the authorities.

Prison education extends beyond simply supporting the literacy skills of the people deprived of their liberty. The programmes in Uruguay have gained success through planning integrated curricula which incorporate practical skills, personal development and the foundations for lifelong learning. Not least important, the effects of the programmes have not been limited to the people deprived of their liberty, but have been felt by their families and contribute to societal and community gains.

Programme Impact and Achievements

Over the last few years, the prison education system has been growing positively in both the capital city and rural regions, with much wider educational coverage offered in prisons across the country than in former times. Nowadays, the majority of the prisons feature areas dedicated to primary level teaching and the Uruguayan literacy programme, “En el pais de Varela: yo sí puedo,” has been introduced in several prisons with positive results. The percentage of the prison population engaged in education programmes has more than quadrupled from 5% in 2005 to 29% in 2008. Bearing in mind the rise in the number of prisoners, this achievement is not to be taken lightly and reflects concerted efforts to implement effective and attractive educational strategies for the prison population.

The establishment of knowledge environments in Uruguayan prisons has fostered great interest for learning among the prisoners and incited the growth of informal offshoot projects. Adapting the educational content and context even further, such projects make the education process more relevant, engaging and effective and set up the foundations for successful lifelong learning. Beginning as a small initiative, chess is one such activity which has been well received and successful in its aims to engage offenders and establish valuable learning environments. In one prison where it has been played for over two years, more than one quarter of the prisoners have started to play chess and monthly tournaments are held. Initially introduced and played during the workshops at the prison, the activity has been taught as often to family members as to other prisoners and has become a feature of daily life in the prison. Having learned chess in prison, one former prisoner began to teach the game to children at his local church shortly after completing his sentence.


In several prisons, a number of alternative educational programmes have emerged from ideas and contributions of the prisoners, promoting self-directed learning and relying on both non-formal and formal methods of education. The results from such participatory projects have been promising, particularly with regard to qualitative achievements (the enrichment of dialogue, better management of interpersonal relationships, the reinforcement of identities, the reconstruction of a new subjectivity, empathy, critical and creative thinking, etc.).

The success of the carnival project became evident through the predictably high level of participation and was then substantiated with the unforeseen results it provoked. Two of the main achievements were a website was constructed for the families of the participants, above all, for their children, with poems and letters for them from the prisoners, and the production of a CD with lyrics and illustrations from the group. The learning experience, support for empowerment and feelings of accomplishment which the project brought about had a high emotional impact on everyone involved in the project.


The Vice President and the Director General of the National Agency for Current and Former Offenders (PNEL) have reported that a positive change has taken place in the relationships between the teaching staff and the prison employees over the last few years. They have accredited the improvement of the quality of education to the Support Commission and the assistance they offer to the teaching and prison staff in the form of awareness days and interviews.


After 2005, some of the greatest challenges to prison education have arisen from governance of the prison system itself, including overcrowding in prisons, lack of budgetary and extra-budgetary resources and the lack of a national unified prison structure. It has been noted that many prison areas, which may have formerly had another, sometimes educational, use, have been reallocated to accommodate more prisoners. Such challenges persist to this day and hamper the quality and quantity of education which can be offered in prisons. In interviews with the prison population, the challenges to prison education from their perspectives were revealed as a lack of didactic material, the limited available time for training and the lack of specialised programmes.

Overcoming the view of many people across all areas of administration (government, prison staff, teaching staff, etc.) that prison education is a marginal task carried out by volunteers is an additional challenge, particularly when facing the often conflicting background, objectives and priorities of the prison staff and authorities. The reported resistance of prison staff to escort offenders to the classrooms has been recorded in a report on prison education in Uruguay from 2010. Tackling this issue is necessary in order to enhance the status of the staff working in educational positions and to guarantee the fulfillment of the prisoners’ right to basic education.

In spite of the successes of the Support Commission, further coordination and promotion of education are needed on the level of national planning and across all areas of government. The challenge at hand is reaching all the relevant parties dealing with imprisoned people and making sure that the value of prison education is recognised. As late as 2009, a new prison was opened in Uruguay which had been constructed without incorporating educational areas into its design, highlighting the necessity to promote a higher prioritisation of prison education on a wider scale.


The progress made in prison education since 2005 has been very beneficial for Uruguayan society, for the promotion of lifelong learning and the protection of the right to education for all. Though there are NGOs supporting projects in the area of prison education, the continuation of the prison education programme relies strongly on government funding and coordination. The continuing recognition of achievement and support by the government suggests that the shift in policymaking towards increased levels of education in prisons will be sustainable. However, it must be appreciated that more discernible results and advances can only be achieved through substantial prison reform, a deepening and widening of the programme and stronger coordination and promotion of the existing projects.

The flexible curriculum and heterogeneity of the programme allow the course content to be adapted to fit in with the participants, their interests and respective situations. Having such flexible features, the programme can be run repeatedly, requiring only a change in theme to maintain interest and to focus on new areas of learning. Given that it is possible for imprisoned people to pursue formal education qualifications whilst serving a sentence in Uruguay, the education programmes can lead to the reinsertion of learners into formal education and the acquisition of national qualifications.



Sr Felipe Machín
Director Sectorial de Educación de Adultos
ANEP (Administración Nacional de Educación Pública)
E-mail: codicenadultos (at)