Breaking the Cycle of Violence in Mexico

Saskia Niño de Rivera’s organization Reinserta has changed both policies and mindsets in Mexico to create a better life and future for children and youth in the criminal justice system. 

Saskia Niño de Rivera, Co-Founder of Reinserta

Mexico City, Mexico

Saskia speaking to a group of incarcerated mothers..
Saskia, co-founder of Reinserta speaking to a group of incarcerated mothers. Photo by Reinserta.

In Mexico, almost everyone is impacted by crime – in September 2020, Saskia Niño de Rivera’s organization Reinserta reported a total of 1,361,735 alleged crimes registered, affecting 24.7 million people over the age of 18. 

Like millions of Mexicans, Saskia has also been affected by crime. When she was 17, a member of Saskia’s family was kidnapped and she witnessed the painful negotiation process. This experience exposed Saskia to the field of criminology and law which would lay the foundation of her passion for improving the criminal justice system in Mexico.  

Although most Mexicans can agree that the crime rate is out of control, the institutiontasked with making Mexico safer, prisons, are actually worsening the nation’s insecurity. Sakia’s team at Reinserta found that prisons are often neglectedresulting in many being self-governed and overpopulated. 

Saskia mentioned, “Prisons in Mexico function as one more place for crime, there are crimes that are planned and operated from inside a prison. Additionally, around 80% of the prisoners in Mexico are controlled by organized crime.” However, it is not just adults that are affected by this neglected, violent prison system. Hundreds of children are actually born within these institutions and spend their formative years here. Saskia discovered that children often experience assault in prisons; one child even died in a riot.  

Saskia said, “If we don’t work with children who are born and raised in prison and if we do not work with children’s parents who are in prison, we will never end the cycle of crime in Mexico.” Crime is intergenerational in Mexico: more than half of children in contact with the criminal justice system come from families with a criminal history and 90% of incarcerated people were exposed to someone in conflict with the law during childhood.  

Saskia and her team at Reinstera are using the power of media and advocacy to show that children and mothers in contact with violence should be treated with empathy, not ostracization. In 2014, Saskia founded Reinserta with fellow social entrepreneur Mercedes Castañeda to stop the cycle of crime in Mexico by working with three beneficiary groups: children born in jails, their families, and juvenile offenders. 

“These children are a part of [Mexico’s] future, just like our children are a part of the future,” Saskia said. To do this, Reinserta tackles this issue from both a legal and social perspective. First, Reinserta conducts much-needed research on the situations in prisons and leads massive awareness campaigns that have successfully placed children born in jails and their mothers on the public agenda. By shedding light on the plight of this population, Reinsterta has improved prison environments and changed the national law for children born and raised in jail, capping their stay at three years old instead of six.   

Using Media to Change Mindsets

When Saskia discovered the dire conditions of hundreds of children and their mothers, she needed to show the country what was happening inside these institutions to build a national will for reform. This is no small feat – Saskia explained that the prison system, and those inside it, are forgotten and dehumanized. 

To tackle the stigma this population faces, Saskia and her team used targeted advocacy campaigns and events that humanize these children by sharing their stories. During one advocacy campaign, Reinserta launched “The Yearbook of Invisible Children” that showcased kids’ drawings, thereby showing the public that not only did this population exist, but that they have hopes, dreams, and fears like all other kids. Reinserta unveiled the project to an audience comprising authorities, media correspondents, businesspeople, and donors to spotlight the needs of these children and pressure legislators to include them in the national agenda.  

“Raising awareness from personal anecdotes, from what I have seen and heard inside the prisons, there is nothing like being able to transmit with great transparency what is happening inside our prisons,” Saskia explained. 

By raising awareness about this population’s strife, Saskia and her team are increasing the public’s empathy for them. Saskia is “scaling deep,” a form of impact that changes dominant mindsets, patterns of behavior, and norms to drive social change. 

While raising awareness is crucial to change public perception, investigations and research are necessary to inform policy. Therefore, research is one of Reinserta’s areas of expertise especially in the areas of maternity and paternity in prison, risk factors of juveniles in conflict with the law, and recruitment of youth by organized crime groups. In fact, Reinserta’s research is so thorough that they are frequently cited by authorities, journalists, and policymakers.  

Scaling Up: A New Reality for Women and Children

These public awareness campaigns, in tandem with data collected by Saskia and her team, culminated in a huge legal victory. In 2017, the National Criminal Enforcement Law was passed with a clause called “maternity in prison.” In article 36, the legislation included major changes for the rights of over 10,000 women and over 500 children living in jails.  

First, it lowered the age children are allowed to stay with their mothers in prison from six years old to three. Secondly, it assigned a budget for the protection of children in prison and included the right to receive specific specialized healthcare. Next, prisons are now required to have specific areas for women with their children that are separated from the rest of the population, reducing the risks of exposure to violence. Lastly, the law reassigned the responsibility of providing health care and education from the prisons themselves to the specific government ministries such as the Ministry of Health or Education.

Saskia explained, “Now, if kids in prison need to be vaccinated, it’s not the prison’s role, it’s the Secretary of Health. And, if you have kids in prison that need education, it’s the obligation of the Secretary of Education to bring schools into the prisons for the children to be able to have an education.” 

This form of impact – where laws and policies are changed – is “scaling up” and will affect generations of children’s lives. By allowing children to grow up in an environment that is less violent and dangerous, this policy will help break the cycle of intergenerational crime. Physical improvements include the creation of safe spaces for mothers and their children, such as toy libraries, vegetable gardens, and playrooms. Reinserta also delivers kits to four different reintegration centers that cover the basic needs of children and their mothers such as personal hygiene supplies, diapers, milk, cereals, wet wipes, and antibacterial soap for babies. Workshops are offered through the Mothers Program to train incarcerated women and mothers on tools and skills to improve their mental health. 

Such reforms are infusing dignity into a violent system making it more conducive to rehabilitation and healing which ultimately empowers mothers and young children who still reside within prisons. Saskia’s original mission was to change the prison system and pave the way for better futures for Mexico’s children. Her work has evolved and its impact is more far-reaching – Saskia is changing the very foundations of these “universities of crime,” by fighting the notion that prison is a lifetime sentence for young people and transforming it into a starting point for building a more meaningful future. Such a mindset shift is key for truly shifting existing cycles of violence and imprisonment.  

By Audrey Lodes