When human development is a priority and caring for the environment is a non-negotiable goal, a unique formula for a sustainable project occurs; this is the case of EcoSólidos.

According to the Director General of Panama’s Penitentiary System, Etéreo Armando Medina, it is an unprecedented project in Panama and the world, which strategically linked the La Joyita Penitentiary Center and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to set up a pioneering model that fuses the activity of recycling, re-socialization and the reinsertion of inmates.

The arrival of EcoSólidos to the center has made it possible to recycle 80% of the waste produced in the area, thus contributing to a significant reduction in pollution and health problems due to the poor disposal of waste. Likewise, the project has opened the doors for other types of programs to be carried out, such as the donation of more than 5,000 seedlings for reforestation and the creation of basic barriers to prevent garbage from reaching the oceans.

For the Head of the Regional Delegation for Panama and the Caribbean of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Gisueppe Renda, it is a unique initiative that was born with the aim of transforming a problem in an opportunity.

Recently, Renda spoke with us from its office at the City of Knowledge Campus about his experience and his vision in participating and leading, together with the Panamanian Penitentiary System, this program that represents a milestone of collaboration between institutions and, above all, a model program that goes much further than a simple environmental initiative.

Photo by: Brenda Islas (CICR)

We know that EcoSólidos is more than a recycling program, what is the added value? What makes it worthy of replication in other penitentiary centers in the country and the world?

Panama produces 4,800 tons of waste per day, each Panamanian generating about 1.2 kg / day. Only 5% of that garbage is recycled. In one year, EcoSólidos contributes with 9.25% of the total garbage that is recycled in Panama.

All these figures, numbers and statistics are based on personal stories: they are people working for a common goal. The added value is in the commitment of the people who work in the program. The success of EcoSólidos is that it never imposed on those deprived of liberty. There was no logical framework process or analysis of the problem to offer solutions, its creation process was totally organic – that sense of belonging is the success of the program. It is a catalyst that promotes recycling in Panama in an era in which our actions against the environment will have an impact for future generations.

What was your mission within the program as part of the ICRC?

One of the first commitments we acquired with the authorities was to work within a legal framework of the program, to give it an identity and recognition in order to guarantee its operation and regulate commutation of sentences in exchange for work.

The ICRC has also facilitated the rapprochement between individuals, companies and organizations to be involved in the program. Additionally, we have tried to be the ambassadors of EcoSólidos, giving it national and international visibility in media, forums and meetings between prison specialists. The ICRC has also invested in materials and supplies for the operation of EcoSólidos and specialized technical support with trained personnel that guide inmates and authorities on how to enhance the program.

What is the role of the inmates in this program?

People are the center of our humanitarian action. By the beginning of 2019, 625 inmates deprived of liberty in La Joyita worked in the different sections of EcoSólidos. This represents 15% of the total population of La Joyita and 23.5% of the population of the minimum-security sector, where the program is developed. It’s the program that the most jobs and opportunities for re-socialization in the Las Joyas Penitentiary Complex.

EcoSólidos allows the commutation of sentence. The staff works six days a week, eight hours a day with two 30-minute breaks, in a ratio of 2:1, that is, for every two days of work, one day sentence is reduced. This allows them to reduce five months and 22 days for each year of work, the maximum time authorized by the Panamanian prison regulations.

EcoSólidos also allows detainees to acquire unusual knowledge, but they will be in demand in the near future. Those people deprived of liberty can aspire to a specialized position in a labor field that aims to offer job opportunities for the coming years, because the recycling industry is evolving in Panama.

What has been done in other countries that is comparable to what is being done in Panama?

In the visits carried out by the ICRC to thousands of detention centers in a year, there are many experiences and initiatives that we find as an organization. However, EcoSólidos is unique. There are places with similar programs, but very far from the reality of EcoSólidos. Leadership, commitment and, to some extent, self-management make this program unique.

How did you perceive the prison before the program and how is it now?

Before starting the program, more garbage was generated in the prison than the brigade and the cleaning company could manage. La Joyita was saturated with debris of all kinds. The bad odors, the fermentation gases, the insects and rodents had turned the penal center into a large landfill, affecting more than 5,000 inmates and hundreds of officials, custodians, policemen and visitors.

Now, with EcoSólidos, an almost immediate positive impact was achieved in the penitentiary center, by making living conditions healthier and more dignified for all. Among other results, we have achieved the promotion of respect and safety of the personnel of the cleaning brigade, tensions between rival groups has diminished. It has also improved the disposition of those involved, who are now active, busy, working as a team and in the open air.

Photo by: Brenda Islas

In this time, what could you say that has been the program’s greatest achievement?

The greatest achievement is in the future of each of the inmates who participate in the program, that is, what happens after they leave prison and what they are giving back to society.

Geo Azul is our main ally for this stage, since they are in charge of managing the personnel of EcoSólidos that benefits from supervised freedom or pre-release initiatives, offering a temporary (transitional) work space to the inmates benefited with this norm. It gives them a job opportunity, while they reintegrate into society. This time window is crucial for a true reinsertion. The percentage of effectiveness in 2018 was 99%, of 70 incarcerated, under the responsibility of Geo Azul, only one returned to prison.

From your point of view, what have been the biggest challenges and how did you face them?

Working in a penitentiary has its own challenges and rhythms, adapting to these is definitely a challenge. Being able to coordinate with all the actors of the process also determines Project’s development speed. Working side by side with the prison authorities has benefited us a lot. The knowledge of Panama’s authorities as a country in which ICRC actions are carried out also facilitated our work.

What do you think has made the program’s sustainability possible over time?

The commitment of the inmates and how they value the program, the appropriation by the authorities and their availability to lead the process has guaranteed the success and continuity of the project. In addition to exposing EcoSólidos to a wider public, including inside the ICRC. This has raised awareness about how valuable the program is, but also has helped to strengthen it and to prepare for the possibility to export it.

What would you consider to be the greatest contribution of the program to the country?

EcoSólidos is teaching Panama a lesson in recycling, to reforest native trees in Panamanian forests. The garbage containment barriers that are being installed in the rivers of the city are made in EcoSólidos with recycled material. The lesson that prisoners are giving to the country is of great value. EcoSólidos is making recycling a visible action.

What are the next steps?

EcoSólidos is a highly sustainable program with significant development potential. The penitentiary system seeks to offer places of employment and re-socialization to people deprived of liberty. Many of them want to work, learn and give back to society.

To approach the outside world somehow to the program is a challenge for everyone involved and we are achieving it. To accomplish this, it’s important to exchange with other countries. Many prison systems have already expressed their interest in visiting EcoSólidos. There are some who have other occupational programs that may be of interest to Panama, too. The ICRC is committed to providing a platform for these actors to exchange experiences.

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