Reducing Violence and Introducing the Rules of Bangkok, Havana and Mandela in the Prisons of La Paz

Actualizado: 2 de may de 2020


This article presents ITEI’s ‘Prevención de la Violencia Intracarcelaria’ project, its background, concepts, objectives, contents and early results. The project started in 2017 and this is its second year running in three prisons of La Paz: Centro de Orientación Femenina (COF) de Obrajes, Centro Penitenciario Femenino de Miraflores (CPFM) and El Centro de Reinserción Social para Jóvenes “Qalauma”. The purpose of the project is to reduce intra-prison violence by changing the prevailing mentalities, culture and behavioural norms in prisons to consist of more compassion, dialogue and tolerance. The project also aims to improve the human rights situation and the humanity of the prison conditions per the Nelson Mandela Rules. Moreover, the project has a strong gender dimension, as there are workshops to increase self-care, self-esteem and personal development of the female prisoners per the Bangkok Rules. Equally, ITEI works to improve the rights of juvenile prisoners per the Havana Rules in the Qalauma prison.


The project is highly crucial and urgent because of the high levels of violence and the inhumane situation in the prisons of Bolivia. Many problems derive from the facts that the prisons are extremely overcrowded and a large amount of the Bolivian prison staff are corrupt and inadequately trained. Indeed, ITEI’s research questionnaires found that the core roots of intra-prison violence are lack of access to key facilities and services, such as showers and healthcare, as well as demoralisation and maltreatment – all of these are increasingly found in overcrowded prisons. Besides, according to the Defensoría Del Pueblo (516), the living conditions in Bolivian prisons are inadequate: dirty, overcrowded, unhygienic and obscure. Moreover, prisoners lack access to water, healthcare, employment and education (ibid: 517).

The prisons are tremendously overcrowded in Bolivia, as according to the Ministry of Justice (2018), the Bolivian prisons have an occupancy level of 363.9%. The overpopulation derives from the high number of pre-trial detention prisoners. Almost 70% of prisoners have not been convicted but are instead waiting for the trials. To tackle the overpopulation, the Bolivian state has organised mass pardons, which have freed a total of around 8500 prisoners. However, these are only short-term bandages which do not address the root causes. These are the ineffectiveness of Bolivia’s punitive approach to reintegrate people successfully and permanently back to society, and the poor capacity of the judicial system to process court trials on time. On average, cases take 2-3 years to be processed in Bolivia.

Reducing intra-prison violence is hugely important because violence causes overwhelming impacts on individuals and the communities around them. In addition to the physical pain and wounds, violence causes various severe psychological issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, grievance and emotional fatigue. Fundamentally, life without violence or its threat is an essential human right that belongs to everyone. Furthermore, the work to promote the rules of Bangkok, Havana and Nelson Mandela is crucial because each prisoner ought to live in humane conditions and receive civilised treatment. Therefore, ITEI’s project has paramount importance for several reasons.

Theoretical and legal framework

ITEI’s project takes into account and actively utilises the prominent international pacts regulating the treatment of prisoners. Most important of these is the Nelson Mandela Rules, which define the universal minimum standards for the conditions of humane treatment which all countries and prisons worldwide ought to follow. The Bangkok and Havana Rules supplement the Mandela rules by adding gender and juvenile specific guidelines respectively. While none of these rules is legally binding, they are still crucial guidelines. The national actors have to pay attention to them as the rules are based on approved and ratified human rights conventions. Furthermore, they provide a valuable benchmark for civil society organisations to utilise in monitoring and assessing the treatment of prisoners.

The Nelson Mandela Rules, also known as the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, have contributed enormously throughout the years in enhancing the humanity of prison treatment and the conditions of prisons. The name of the rules honours the legacy of Nelson Mandela. The late South African President spent 27 years imprisoned during the Apartheid and dedicated his life fighting for human rights, democracy, equality and peace. The rules are much needed because a big percentage of the world´s prisons are overstretched, poorly managed, inhumane, violent and repressive. On top of protecting the human rights of the prisoners, the rules aim to improve the reintegration of prisoners.

The Bangkok Rules, also known as the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, recognize the gender-specific backgrounds and needs of female prisoners. The Bangkok Rules contain positive discrimination aimed to achieve equality between female and male prisoners by addressing the historical neglect of female prisoners and their needs. Particularly, the Bangkok Rules recognise the different conditions for men and women in leading to imprisonment, the different healthcare needs – especially, related to pregnancy and infants – and the need to protect female prisoners from sexual and gender-based violence. Moreover, the Bangkok Rules are also the first rules to protect the needs and rights of children whose parents are in prison.

The Havana Rules, also known as the United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, upgrade the Mandela rules by adding features specifically concerning the juvenile prisoners. Most importantly, the Havana Rules outline that juveniles’ life opportunities and natural development should not be deteriorated because of imprisonment. This means that the imprisonment should have a strong rehabilitative focus, provide individualised treatment, and guarantee the rights to education and employment during imprisonment. In practice, the Havana Rules recommend small prison populations in juvenile centres, separation of juveniles from adults, offering meaningful self-developmental activities for juveniles and allowing extensive contact to the outer world.

In addition, the project utilises a dynamic security model to enhance the security and humanity of the prison conditions. The model is based on regular and meaningful two-way dialogue between the staff and prisoners, as well as encountering all prisoners as individuals and with respect. Essentially, the dynamic security model aims to expand on the traditional notion of prison security which relies on discipline, restraints and tools of control. Dynamic security targets more sustainable security by aiming to prevent violence and other security threats in the first place and by concentrating heavily on reintegration. In fact, the idea of dynamic security is strongly recommended in the Nelson Mandela Rules.

Project description: objectives and contents

The workshops are carried out by ITEI’s experienced and skilled multidisciplinary staff who, also, provide medical, psychological, psychotherapeutic and legal support in the prisons. Currently, the workshops are attended by around 150 prisoners in three prisons, 30 security guards and 25 members of administrative staff. However, the number of impacted people is much bigger because by carrying the workshop teachings and changed behaviour each participating prisoner influences her/his surroundings, resulting in fewer confrontations and risk situations. Also, the participating prison staff are able to carry the change to the bigger population by rotating in different prisons. Furthermore, the programme has an indirect influence on enhancing family relations and the communal security of the participants.

The project’s aims can be summarised into three categories: (1) to reduce intra-prison violence; (2) to enhance the human right conditions of prisoners per the rules of Nelson Mandela, Bangkok and Havana; and (3) to improve the prisoners’ rehabilitation process back to the society. To achieve these goals, ITEI intends to change the attitudes and behavioural norms, introduce moral values and ways to solve conflicts peacefully, and build cooperation and trust within and between the prisoners and staff. Furthermore, another important objective is to produce research data to gain a better understanding of intra-prison violence: its quantity, types, dynamics, the risk factors causing violence, and how these evolve.

The project lasts three years and each stage has slightly different goals and purposes. During the first year, the project focused on one group at a time. The groups took part in participative workshops to plan activities, drafted theoretical inputs for each group, and developed conflict resolution and violence reduction strategies within each group. The second-year has included the beginning of inter-group joint sessions and workshops to develop conflict resolution and violence reduction strategies between different groups. The third-year will include even more collaborative work between groups. For example, planning will be done jointly, theoretical inputs will be drafted to the whole groups and agreements to reduce violence will be constructed together between different groups.

The project started with planning sessions where the participants and workshop organisers jointly planned the contents for the forthcoming workshops. The planning was based on ITEI’s inclusive and participative model which aims to reach results that correspond with the participants’ personal experiences and everyday realities. In addition to the early planning sessions, there have been regular planning sessions afterwards. In these, the participants have been able to reform the focuses based on the evolvement in their personal experiences, interests and needs. Furthermore, after each workshop, the presenters review the process and plan new approaches based on the interests and needs of the participants.

The project features three different types of workshops: (i) therapeutic; (ii) theoretical; and (iii) physical workshops. The therapeutic sessions offer a platform for interactive and confidential discussions with each other. In the theoretical workshops, participants engage with many crucial topics, such as gender equality, sexual violence, intra-family violence, torture, concepts of conflict, and the aftermath of violence. In the physical workshops, the participants train self-control and management of emotions with different physical practices aiming to develop the participants’ recognition of own bodies. Furthermore, the workshops introduce different conflict resolution strategies and alternative ways of dealing with conflicts and promote values of respect, cooperation and trust.

The workshops also feature heavily the themes of the Bangkok, Havana and Nelson Mandela Rules. These workshops educate prisoners about their rights, how to notice injustice related to their treatment and how to take appropriate legal actions against violations. ITEI also organises workshops with the police, security guards and other members of prison staff to teach the guidelines for the humane treatment of prisoners. Moreover, the workshops have trained the prison staff to comply with international rules. In regards to the Bangkok Rule, the workshops aim to challenge the existing prejudices and erase stigmas against different groups of prisoners. Thus, ITEI is closely following the recommendation that successful implementation of the Bangkok Rules requires changing attitudes, awareness and practices.

Results so far

ITEI measures the project’s effectiveness based on questionnaires and general feedback. Project evaluation, qualitative and satisfaction questionnaires will be given to the participants before the start, during and after the end of the project. The questionnaires aim to study the evolvement of participants’ characteristics, the development of the participants’ substance knowledge and satisfaction on the organisation of the workshops. The questionnaires also aim to produce vital research data for ITEI.

In terms of satisfaction, the workshops have been very popular and the participants have expressed genuine interest towards them. The feedback questionnaires show overwhelming satisfaction with the workshops. Over 80% of the participants feel that the course methodologies, contents, theories, practicality, group dynamics and seminar conditions have either been great or very good. In general, the results have been extremely positive. For example, the project has accomplished better relationships – a sense of togetherness, compassion, toleration and enhanced level of communication and cooperation – within the inmates and between the prisoners and staff. Secondly, the project has achieved changes in the prisoners’ attitudes, ways of behaviour, emotional control and dealing with distress – into a more peaceful and collaborative way. Thirdly, the workshops have achieved a common understanding and commitment to the prevention of violence within the prisoners and staff.

The workshops have achieved overwhelmingly positive results so far. For example, the physical workshops have successfully increased the participants’ awareness of their own body and given the participants methods to be utilised in moments of stress, anger or aggression. The theoretical workshops have also accomplished changes in the participants’ preconceptions and enhanced their knowledge. They have also improved the ability of the participants to reflect on and critically engage with the different events in their life. Likewise, therapeutic sessions have also achieved great results. For example, the therapeutic workshops have helped participants to overcome loneliness, anguish and discomfort in the prison environment. Secondly, the therapeutic seminars have succeeded in building confidence between ITEI and the participants. This has enabled advanced psychological treatment, and help in times of crisis. Thirdly, the therapeutic workshops have increased the level of knowledge in what causes violence and how it could be better mitigated.

In terms of research, the project has generated very important knowledge. During the project, ITEI has, for example, researched the volumes of intra-prison violence. While the results cannot be generalised, as the number of responders was limited, the study is nonetheless indicative and significant in showing the presence of intra-prison violence in Bolivia. The questionnaire found that over half (55%) of the surveyed prisoners have experienced physical violence by other prisoners. Even more (64%) have experienced psychological violence by their fellow inmates. The numbers for the violence inflicted by the prison staff were a bit lower but still strikingly high. Almost half (49%) of the prisoners have experienced psychological violence by the staff and 39% have experienced physical abuses by the authorities.

Moreover, the questionnaires have found that the prisoners face many types of systematic and widespread human rights violations. For example, the police and security guards regularly restrict the work of the administrative staff, such as medics and psychologists, to support prisoners. Secondly, the research found that there are regular and arbitrary abuses of power by the prison authorities. In the questionnaires, the prisoners assumed these to be normal ways of treatment in prisons. Even more strikingly, the prisoners appeared to have submitted for it and are not doing anything, as they view their opportunities to influence minimal.


ITEI is currently running the second year of ‘Prevención de la Violencia Intracarcelaria’ project in three prisons of La Paz. The project is critically needed because in Bolivia the amount of intra-prison violence is enormous and the humanity of prison conditions and treatment are poor. The project aims to reduce intra-prison violence by creating change in the existing attitudes, culture and ways of behaviour. To accomplish these goals, ITEI runs physical, therapeutic and theoretical workshops. Moreover, the project aims to enhance the humanity of prison livelihoods by organising workshops per the Nelson Mandela, Bangkok and Havana Rules. So far the results have been overwhelmingly positive, as the feedback received by the participants has been over 80% satisfactory and many of the key goals have been achieved. For example, the project has enhanced the relationships within and between the prisoners and staff, accomplished changes in the values and ways of behaviour in the participants, and constructed collaborative commitment between participants to reduce intra-prison violence. All things considered, ITEI is looking forward to starting the third and final year of the project.

12th of September 2019

Valtteri Nurminen, ITEI Volunteer