Reading And Writing In Unit 33: Mothers, Children and Educational Institutions

Country Profile: Argentina


42,538,000 (2013)

Official language


Youth literacy late (15-24 years)

Total: 99.3% (2015)
Male: 99.13%
Female: 99.48%

Adult Literacy Rate (15 years and over)

Total: 98.09% (2015)
Male: 98.04%
Female: 98.13%

Programme Overview

Programme TitleReading And Writing In Unit 33: Mothers, Children and Educational Institutions
Implementing OrganizationOutreach Secretariat of the Faculty of Humanities and Education Science University. National University of La Plata (UNLP)/Provincial Directorate for Early Education (DPEI). Directorate General for Culture and Education of the Province of Buenos Aires.
Language of InstructionSpanish
FundingProvincial Directorate for Early Education (DPEI), Directorate General for Culture and Education of the Province of Buenos Aires, National University of La Plata (UNLP).

Country context and background

Argentina is one of the largest economies of South America, with a GDP of more than US $540,000 million. During the past decade, the country has grown steadily and has invested heavily in health and education, areas in which it spends 8% and 6% of GDP respectively. The early development of popular education has given Argentina one of the highest literacy rates in the world. According to the 2013 United Nations Human Development Index, Argentina ranked 40th in education quality worldwide and second in Latin America. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses’ (INDEC) National Population, Household and Housing Census, Argentina has a literacy rate of 98.1%.

Under the 2006 Education Act, education is obligatory for children aged from five to 18 years. At all levels of education there are public and private educational institutions, but the State guarantees free education in all of them, with the exception of postgraduate university courses.

In Argentina, there are penal institutions at the federal level (through the Federal Penitentiary Service), with units located throughout the country at the provincial level. The 23 provinces have their own prisons, generally organized in the form of a provincial penitentiary service or similar model. Unit 33, which has implemented the programme studied here, is accountable to the Penitentiary Service of the Province of Buenos Aires.

To address inequality and violations of the right to education in contexts of imprisonment, in July 2011, Law No. 26.695 was enacted, amending the education chapter of the law on the enforcement of custodial sentences. Article 133 of the law provides that, “All people deprived of their liberty have the right to public education. The National Government, the provinces and the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires have the responsibility, which may not be delegated, to give priority to comprehensive, permanent and quality education for all people deprived of their liberty in their jurisdictions, guaranteeing equal access free of charge in the exercise of this right […]”.

Unit 33 was inaugurated on 29 March 1999. The major feature of this establishment is that it has a wing for the accommodation of pregnant inmates and mothers with children under four years old. The place where the children are housed is adapted in order to limit the impact on the children of their mother’s life in prison.

Inside the establishment, there is access to primary and secondary education and vocational training. In addition, through an agreement with the National University of La Plata (UNLP), inmates can take university courses in Law, Sociology and Journalism.

In addition, “Reading and writing in Unit 33. Mothers, children and educational institutions” is an initiative taken by the National University of La Plata, in collaboration with the Provincial Directorate for Early Education (DPEI) of the Directorate General for Culture and Education of the Province of Buenos Aires. The project aims to expand the cultural rights of prison inmates, working with women and children to enhance interaction through cultural practices based around reading, writing and other forms of expression such as music, games and cinema.

Programme description

The project is being carried out in Unit 33 prison in the Province of Buenos Aires, located in Los Hornos, near La Plata. Unit 33, operating under the responsibility of the Buenos Aires Penitentiary Service, is a women's prison unit, with wings that house pregnant women and mothers and children up to the age of four years. It develops a range of coordinated actions in non-formal education based around social practices of language and other forms of expression. In this project, women and children are provided with cultural practices that they are entitled to exercise and enhance in various situations of social interaction. Launched in 2010 as an outreach project of the National University of La Plata, since then it has been under the management of the Provincial Directorate for Early Education of the Province of Buenos Aires.

From 2010 until today, the project has supported the following coordinated actions:

  1. Workshop entitled “La Ronda (The Circle): stories, poems and songs”, aimed at mothers and children;
  2. Training proposals, aimed at nursery school teachers of children who attend schools outside the prison unit;
  3. Joint management with provincial government agencies responsible for addressing the rights of detainees, in particular, the Provincial Directorate for Early Education (DPEI).

In 2010, 50 women and 30 children were enrolled; in 2011, 45 women and 35 children; in 2012, 41 children; in 2013, 68 children and in 2014, 67 children. There is no data available on how many women enrolled during the three years 2012, 2013 and 2014.

“La Ronda” – together with the programmes on the national television channel for children called Pakapaka – are the only educational proposals for the children inside the prison. They do not have their own physical space and recreational needs or a space in which they can find daily educational experiences outside the prison wings. At present, there is only a physical space for the adults’ school where other workshops run simultaneously for various groups of women, including a theatre workshop, a sewing workshop and guitar lessons.

In support of the rights of mothers and children living in prison, for some years now the project has been promoting, in various governmental circles, the creation of a playroom in Unit 33, organized by teachers specialized in children’s education so that the children can share formative experiences outside school hours in interaction with mothers who are willing to participate. The aim is to promote the creation of a quality space where “La Ronda” can enhance educational opportunities in daily activities of exchanges with books and readers, games and recreational materials for different ages as well as musical and artistic experiences that can be sustained with continuity in the daily life of the prison (while encouraging the attendance of all children in nursery and infant schools outside). Together with other decisions that promote better living conditions for mothers and children in prison, the educational space is one of their rights.

Goals and targets

The main goals of the programme are as follows:

Programme implementation

Teaching – Learning Approaches and Methodologies

The project is aimed at women and children from birth to four years old, housed in Unit 33. The actions are organized in three areas of work:

(1) “La Ronda” workshop

“La Ronda” is a non-school workspace that enables interaction among women and between women and children, based around written culture and other forms of expression and cultural practices, which are either non-existent or very limited in prison settings.

The workshop takes place within the prison unit twice a week, in two-hour meetings throughout the school year (March to December). The proposals for mothers and children are planned on a bimonthly basis and are reformulated following the analysis of documentation gathered from the records of each meeting, including the recording of dialogues in the workshops, interviews with mothers and productions from the workshops. Initially conceived as a single workshop for mothers and children, it was then divided into two distinct and simultaneous spaces owing to the need for women to have their own space in which to interact with adults. Mothers can choose in which of the two workshops they wish to participate. The workshops take place simultaneously in two separate spaces in the hall of the adults’ school in the unit. On one side of the hall is the children’s workshop, including the mothers who wish to participate, and on the opposite side of the hall is the women’s workshop, enclosed by a circle of chairs next to a small library which contains books for adults, children and babies.

The children’s workshop is divided into three activities, with particular features according to age:

The playtime and closing activities aim to enrich the participants and provide enjoyment. Different songs are offered, whose poetic texts or word games form part of the children’s learning. This enhances the experiences offered during the exploration of books, but does not seek to have a direct link with the readings of the first activity.

The women’s workshop has been changing over time, following the requests of the participants and the proposals of the organizers. It was established as a space for meeting and exchange around literary reading, the loan of books, meetings with music and short films, proposals for personal writing, building games for the children, and producing and presenting theatre and puppet shows for the children.

Some of the topics referred to concern the natural and social environment, proposed in projects for older infant school children. These can include reading material from the library of “La Ronda”. The idea is that women in the unit find ways to link themselves with the educational activities of the infant school. In “La Ronda” these issues are not dealt with specifically with the children or the women.

(2) Public nursery and infant schools under the Provincial Directorate for Early Education of the Province of Buenos Aires

Actions are carried out with teachers, managers and inspectors from three institutions close to the prison unit attended by the children.

Some actions:

The Directorate of Continuing Education of the Province of de Buenos Aires has participated in this action since 2013 and the regional technical teams work with technical assistance in the nursery and infant schools.

(3) Periodical coordination meetings between university teams, the Provincial Directorate for Early Education (DPEI) and other education providers, of the Penitentiary Service, of the Provincial Directorate for Criminal Policy and other governmental bodies

The purpose of these meetings is to progress in the joint management of actions and issues identified.

Meetings of technical assistance with teachers, managers and inspectors of the nursery and infant schools that the children attend are held on a monthly basis.

Meetings are held for the organization and establishment of agreements with educational and penitentiary staff considering the needs recorded in the development of the work.

Programme Content, Teaching Material

The offers of formal education in the prison unit correspond to a primary school and a secondary school. The women who belong to these schools have the freedom to decide whether they wish to participate in the workshop. There are 128 women enrolled in the primary school and between 30 and 40 women attending the secondary school.

The women’s workshop is structured around the following:

  1. A table of books selected from the library: exploration and choice of material, awaiting the arrival of participants. Exchanges on the books explored.
  2. Reading of varied texts and exchanges between readers. On some occasions, exchanges are made on cinema and artistic expressions. The coordinator reads for everyone and opens the floor to exchanges on the texts, then the reading is shared. On other occasions, whoever offers to read aloud does so for the others. In this way, whoever is unable to read by themselves does so through other readers.
  3. The closing song, proposed by the team and/or participants, is also shared with the mothers and children.

Along with books, photocopies have an important place. Individual folders contain all sorts of papers: poems, couplets, compliments, texts that can be chosen from a box and read aloud may be rehearsed during the preceding week, lyrics of songs sung at the closing of each meeting, texts written by the participants in the workshops or their cells. The folder allows continuity for some of the readings in other spaces and for other people and, at the same time, allows them to have material of their own (which is highly appreciated in this context).

In the “La Ronda” workshop, there is an annual schedule that is reviewed in bimonthly meetings. The nursery and infant schools follow the curriculum designed by the Provincial Directorate for Early Education (DPEI) of the Province of Buenos Aires.

The technical equipment, play materials, furniture for the library and provision of books for adults and children are acquired through subsidies from the National University of La Plata (UNLP) and NGO donations.

The play areas and books are provided by the Directorate for Socio-educational Policies of the Nation and is managed through the education in prison settings modality in the Province of Buenos Aires.

Recruitment and Training of Trainers

The programme has six facilitators who have training in education. The number of participants ranges between three and twenty-five per meeting and most of them are women, with the exception of one man who participated in the workshop and others who were invited to participate at end-of-year events (such as musicians). The variation in numbers of participants is a particularity of the work context. Throughout the project, the workshop coordinators are teachers of early education, professors in Education Sciences and advanced students in Psychology and Education Sciences in the Faculty of Humanities and Education Sciences at the National University of La Plata (UNLP).

As this is an outreach project, those who participate through the university do so on a voluntary basis as part of their professional training. Four staff were hired by DPEI, so they participated in the project as paid employees. The salary of theses facilitators is 7,000 Argentine pesos (on average), the equivalent of around $744.86, although in some cases they also perform other educational tasks at DPEI.

In 2015, the programme had four employment contracts for the educators working on the project (in two cases the contract included other activities). The contracts have an annual cost of 280,000 Argentine pesos ($17,047). As a university outreach project, there are also voluntary workers. In the case of the Director, the management of the centre falls under her academic activities.

As complementary training for trainers, the work meetings and bibliographic materials open spaces for professional growth.

Enrolment of Participants

Personal contact with the women, through visits to the prison wings by the task force, has been the best way to publicize the activities, along with informative posters and dissemination by participants.

There are different levels between the women who attend the workshop. In some cases, they are illiterate or have reading and writing difficulties, but most can read texts and share writing produced by themselves.

Participant Learning Achievement Assessment

Assessments are made through the following:

Productions in the workshop highlight the positive effects of the proposals of those who participate in “La Ronda”.

In particular, the learning by the children through literary, play and musical experiences is notable. With regard to books, for example, the small children request those that they wish to re-explore, mentioning characters or passages in the stories, stopping and making observations and extensive and detailed comments about images and texts, and anticipating texts that the reader is reading when they re-visit some of the books. The games become more enhanced and complex; the songs become part of the repertoire that mothers and children sing, not just in “La Ronda” but also in the prison wings.

Interviews are conducted systematically on the workshops devoted to women. In the first years of the project, the participants comment mainly on the opportunity to learn how to read and on the value of shared reading for their own subjectivity as well as the possibility of discovering in the texts elements of their own lives. Some of those interviewed said that shared reading was an activity that they had never experienced, and very different from reading alone; others said that it gave them the opportunity to practice something that they had rarely been able to do and enabled some to recover the lost value of reading and writing. Participation in the workshop enabled them to discover unknown facets of their other companions and the possibility of being surprised by words themselves, something hitherto unknown to them (Bety says, “I had never heard such words come out of my mouth, like they came out of a book”).

To attract participants’ interest in learning to read, for example, for women who have difficulties spelling (a problem encountered at school), the coordinators use the following strategy. Participants select or are given a text that someone else has read previously. In this way, reading is not only seen by them as “putting sounds to the letters”, but having heard the meaning of the text they try to make sense of it, coordinating the information and not just the letters. It has been observed that even those who had great difficulty at first, made significant progress in doing it for themselves, with the desire to do so.

On some occasions, following on from “La Ronda”, other spaces and forms of interaction started, based on language practices. Readings are shared in cells and books for adults and children circulate in the prison wings.

Monitoring and Evaluation of the Programme

The performance of the facilitators is monitored through the reading of weekly or fortnightly documentation of the work done in the prison, the team meetings analysing the work process, the needs and the obstacles encountered. Coordination includes meetings with other provincial bodies. These actions enable the evaluation of the project.

No external evaluation of the programme has been undertaken.

Programme impacts and challenges

Impact and Achievements

The Directorate of Continuing Education has planned and initiated actions in order for technical teams to work with nursery and infant schools attended by children from other prison units such as, for example, the Federal Penitentiary in Ezeiza and San Nicolas prison in the Province of Buenos Aires.

Another important outcome is that the officer responsible for early education in prisons of the Province of Mendoza visited “La Ronda” to learn from the experience of the work undertaken.

DPEI disseminates material on literary reading for all nursery and infant schools in the province, inspired by the work situations tested and analysed in ‘La Ronda”, which is considered to be another important achievement.

Some testimonials from the participants:

According to the participants, “La Ronda” was a very good opportunity for them. Each comments on her own impressions. For example, Marta considers “La Ronda” as a space where it was possible to recover what she had lost: laughter, a little freedom, a living space. Yole considers that it was a milestone in her life, a place that allowed her to start communicating, stop being called “dumb” and addressing personal issues: “Here, I began to talk [...] whereas before, in the street, or even when I arrived here, they called me “dumb” because I didn’t speak”. All of the participants commented on the place of reading for their own subjectivity, the possibility of “inhabiting other worlds”, and from there, reading their own “between the lines” (Petit, 1999). Marta expresses renewed interest in books and tells how, through them, she can find traces of her own history: “there is a lot in common [...] I find sentences or stories or things that are like my life”.
For some interviewees, shared reading was an activity that they had never experienced; for others, it was an opportunity to learn to read, to practice something that they had rarely been able to do or to recover the lost value of reading and writing. Mara surprised and thrilled us with her comments. Her experience enabled her to find the answer to a longstanding question: the meaning of reading for readers (why did people sit reading on trains and at stations, or buy books, in the places where she went to steal?). She says, “Now I understand that I am doing what these people were doing and I can do it when I am free again [...] Nobody ever used to read to me or tell me stories, but here they do [...]”.
Entering fictional worlds in interaction with others is different when it is done alone. “La Ronda” provides the opportunity to do so in company. It is a highly valued social practice for all. In Tamara’s words, “For me, it would be perfect if you continued incorporating ideas. This is good, and we can contribute. But a library for me alone does not make any sense… if I read a book on my own, with whom would I share what I read?”. Tamara refers to a broadly addressed issue from the theoretical field: the necessary coexistence between the provision of books and access to these materials of culture. Biographical materials, but with readers who can exchange with each other, where the power to contribute is shared between the participants and the coordinators.

A sentence can summarize a set of expressions recorded in the interviews: in the workshop, they do not seem to be the same as in the prison wings. They feel different because of how they are considered. Both young and older adults share this view. Discovering others was as relevant as being surprised at the word itself. A power hitherto unknown. Following on from “La Ronda” other spaces and forms of interaction have started, based on language practices in cells and books for adults and children circulating in the prison wings. Patricia says, “In prison wing 2, I would go and read to my companions and we would laugh at the riddles. There were eight of us there, in my cell we would get together”.


The conditions of the prison context in which the project is being implemented are similar to those described in studies and reports on penitentiary units. Within the framework of this type of institution – where control takes primacy over the well-being of people and treatment works in favour of obedience – women’s prisons, in turn, have particular features, such as greater difficulties to access formal education and greater isolation in terms of contact with their families, especially with their children and partners (Women in prison. The scope of punishment. 2011). As to the mothers who live with their children, they do not have adequate accommodation – they share cells in the prison wings – or specific places for play and activities with their children.

Another important challenge for the project is to include the facilitators, who participate in the project as permanent staff for this type of activity in prison.

Lessons Learned

From the outset, an obstacle became clear. Although the activity always started at the same time, not all the participants arrived at the same time. This depended particularly on the staff in charge of the roll call in the prison wings. With regard to attendance, some women attended consistently, while others went on an occasional basis, either for personal reasons or owing to circumstance (prison visits, telephone calls, occupations, physical safety, depression, illness, requisition, internal conflicts). In view of these conditions, we scheduled different times in both workshops, which were sustained throughout the year, so everybody could be included in the development of “La Ronda” without a problem.

From the beginning of the project, it was evident that women, with or without children in the unit, needed their own space to assess their journey, where they reconnect with their own experiences in order to build collective experiences, the reparative value of which has already been documented in critical contexts of marginalization and confinement.

The following is highlighted:


It is expected that as a university outreach project that began in 2010, it will be completed at the end of 2017, and its management will be continued by the provincial bodies that have participated from its inception to the present day.

Following on from the project, several activities have been promoted, many of which have been proposed by governmental bodies, including the Provincial Directorate for Early Education (DPEI) of the Province of Buenos Aires. For example, the intervention protocol on the entry and exit of children in the prison unit; follow-up of the educational paths of children who live in Unit 33 and other provincial prison units; production of teaching guidelines drawn up by DPEI on work with books and readers for all nursery and infant schools in the Province of Buenos Aires, based on the educational experiences developed and conceptualized in “La Ronda"; incorporation of regional technical teams of the Directorate of Continuing Education of the Province of Buenos Aires to extend the experience of work in nursery and infant schools near to other prison units.


Contact details

Maria Claudia Molinari
Outreach Project Manager,
Faculty of Humanities and Education Science (FaHCE), National University of La Plata (UNLP).
FaHCE Outreach Secretariat. C/ 51 entre 124 y 125- Ensenada. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel.: +54-221-4236673, ext. 1118