One of the El Sistema’s education programs that provide more evidence of the power of music as a tool for social inclusion and reintegration is the Penitentiary Academic Program (PAP). It was established in 2007 for the purpose of reducing violence in jails and preparing inmates for their reintegration into society through the learning, practice, and enjoyment of music.
The PAP is funded by the Inter-American Development Bank, and carried out by the Simón Bolívar Music Foundation in concert with the Ministry of People’s Power for Interior and Justice.
The PAP is currently being implemented in eight penitentiary centers, where 1,565 inmates receive music education through the network of Penitentiary Symphony Orchestras (PSO). they are taught to play both academic and folk music.
To date, over 7,000 inmates have participated in the PAP. Once they serve their sentences, they can continue their music studies and work for the PAP through the extension program.
Kleiberth Lenin Mora Aragón, horn player of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (SBSOV) coordinates the program. This musician and lawyer, with studies in Humanitarian International Law, and a master’s degree in criminology, devoted himself to identifying the needs of the penitentiary population of Venezuela. He learnt that the key was to find a way to re-educate the inmates and help them to reintegrate into society.
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The PAP promotes the development of discipline, self-esteem, communication skills, sense of group belonging, responsibility, and skills that favor team work. Through the orchestra, they learn to respect others and control their emotions. Furthermore, through this program they find again joy in life. On the other hand, participating in the program may help them to reduce their prison time.
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The first step was to carry out a sociological research, which was followed by an analysis of the security mechanisms operating in every prison facility. The third and last step was to verify whether there were spaces that could be used as teaching classrooms and offices.
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Within every prison where the PAP has been established, there is a staff comprised of a coordinator, a secretary, a conductor and music professors (whose number would vary from prison to prison) who were educated at El Sistema and are residents of the area. Additionally, there is a group of behavior change specialists who develop a weekly monitoring practice.
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To form the ensembles, the inmates are interviewed so as to know their temperament, nature, and morphology. Based on this information, they are assigned a musical instrument. The only requirement is not to have records of assault against penitentiary staff.
Those who are part of the program must study an average of four to six hours daily. Applications are accepted year-round.
I arrived to this prison on the last day of June 2006, a week before my birthday. It coincided with the launch of the Penitentiary Academic Program at the INOF center. I was 28 years old and salsa and reggaeton were the kind of music I liked. As soon as I saw the El Sistema musicians at the prison auditorium, I told my prison mates: ‘let’s annoy them.’ I came with the idea of throwing at them small pieces of paper that I rolled in my hands. Laughter was all you could hear.
The second time I heard about this program I laughed at it again. We were given some leaflets that explained the code of appearance and behavior established by the program. What an absurd! My prison mates and I did could not stop laughing.
The third time was decisive. I challenged one of the violin professors to play a salsa song with his instrument, because that was my favorite kind of music. Well, he did it and I … could not believe it. I immediately joined the program. As soon as I was given the violin, all my prison mates began teasing me.
I still remember my surprise when I saw a bunch of musical notes on the staff… All this has been wonderful: I became disciplined, and has motivated me to better myself. I stopped using vulgar words and, little by little, I changed my way of thinking. We were so busy practicing that we stopped being violent. I remember there was a woman I hated to death, and we became friends after playing together. Music has had a magical effect on me and it has meant a lot to me.
I feel very proud to be an example to the inmates serving at the penitentiary centers of the Andean region, where I currently work as an instructor.
I have been a member of this orchestra since its formation. I dreamt of that day when I would perform at the Teresa Carreño Theater (…) The flute has helped me to leave the drugs. I’m a new person.
Before this, my music was reggaeton (…) Now I play the double bass and my proudest moment was when my four children, ages 14, 13, 10 and 9, watched me performing at the Teresa Carreño Theater. When they applauded me, I finally felt useful in this life.
Note: All the testimonials are from Venezuela en el cielo de los escenarios by Fundación Bancaribe, and they have been reproduced here by permission of Lenín Mora, Director of the Penitentiary Academic Program.