Now this is the kind of woman we are enamored with! Saskia Niño de Rivera is a 27 year old world changer form Mexico who is dedicating her life to helping others have a much better one. She is the creator of a non-profit organization called Reinserta un Mexicano (Reintegrate a Mexican) which, as the name suggests, helps certain types of people reintegrate into life outside of prison. Those certain type of people? The children of prison inmates.
The project is called “Children in Prison” and they look after the children of inmates who live with them in penitentiary. In Mexico, the law allows children of inmates to live with them for up to 6 years, and it is estimated there are more than 300 children of inmates locked up with their parents across the country, and in Mexico City alone, each year 130 babies are born in prisons. Mexico is also the nation with the 7th highest inmate population in the world and its penitentiary system is referred to as the “university of crime”.
Reinserta un Mexicano wants to enable these toddlers to grow up as far removed from the prison lifestyle as possible and help them not think of jail as their “norm”. Many prisons have nurseries and areas where the children can play with toys and read books, but they eat and sleep with their mothers.
Sakia’s mission is to initially help change the law to make the maximum age of prison children 3 years old, instead of 6, and eventually make it so that they aren’t allowed to live there at all.
The overall goal of Reinserta un Mexicano is to completely reform the Mexican prison system, one aspect at a time as she believes this will not only help inmates but disrupt the cycle of crime across the country.
Her passion comes from her own person proximity to crime which, she told Time magazine, helped shape her life forever.
When she was 17, Saskia’s uncle was kidnapped and the perpetrators held him for a month while asking for a ransom. Saskia saw the anguish her cousins and extended family went through and knew she wanted to dedicate her life to making a change.
“That hostage situation defined what I do today with my life,” she said.
Rather than scaring Saskia, this experience made her passionate about criminology, and inspired her to go work for the negotiator for the friend’s case, at the age of 18 while she was studying law at the prestigious ITAM, where she earned a law degree.
Her life essentially reads like the resume of an activist warrior. Saskia is the daughter of a Mexican father and a Dutch mother and grew up concerned with social justice and the state of insecurity in her home country of Mexico. In high school, Saskia was awarded her high school’s Leadership Award for a project she designed helping women and children who lived in the sewers of Mexico City.
This project, which involved providing AIDS talks and contraception for these women and helping them access public services, developed Saskia’s budding interests in psychology and the vulnerable populations within Mexico City.
Having a law degree didn’t satisfy Saskia and her interests enough, so she also went to UNAM to study psychology, with a specialization in criminal and prison psychology. This helped Saskia to understand that Mexico’s security problem had much to do with the psychological profiles and life experiences of the people who were committing crimes. This work also exposed her to the conditions of the Mexican prison system, which she began to see as a critical piece of the larger problem of insecurity.
One of the most important aspects of the initiative is to make sure these children that live with their inmate parents don’t end up in prison themselves by repeating the cycle of crime and they help the children to get educated in order to prevent this.
So far the organization is making a profound effect in the lives of these little ones since it was founded in 2013, as a government official is singing the praises of what Saskia and her team are doing.
“We have seen intense changes. The children have shown improvement in their behavior, and the mothers have become better parents,” said Hazael Ruiz, the under secretary for the penitentiary system in Mexico City.
Reinserta un Mexicano also helps the parents of these children, and other young offenders, become part of society and lead a crime-free life by helping them start businesses.
If you need any further proof of how prison reform programs work, just take a look at what the Bard Prison Initiative in the United States is doing. They allow incarcerated men and women to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentence. Results have shown that armed with an education after leaving prison, the rates of employment of these former inmates is high, and less than 2% of the inmates graduating from this program have returned to prison
Their results were clearly evident when the BPI debate team took down the Harvard Debate Team recently. The Harvard members were caught off guard with how prepared they BPI inmates were, and pleasantly surprised. Initiatives like this are cost effective (as opposed to keeping inmates in tax-payer funded prisons over and over again) and when they are eventually released, they use their education to get jobs and become part of a thriving economy.
So when we see what women like Saskia are doing, it deserves more press and more support because there is plenty of evidence to show prison inmates are worth investing in.
Due to her committed work, Saskia has earned the respect of prison guards, government officials and lawmakers. She also serves as the Director of Penitentiary Connection for the National Anti-Kidnapping Commission.
Saskia is seeking to “humanize the inhuman”, according to her profile on the Ashoka Innovators for the Public website, of which she became a fellow in 2015, and believes the whole system needs to be reformed in order for Mexico to shed its “university of crime” tag.
Her work is gaining the attention of people far and wide, and we will happily play a part in that momentum. She was asked to share her her experience of being a social justice advocate in a TEDx talk in Mexico City earlier in 2015 where each speaker talked about making the impossible possible. Click the link to watch, it is in Spanish and the English translation is a little disjointing but it is worth watching and hearing the heart of her mission.
We know many women and their children in Mexico are having their lives transformed by Saskia and her organization, and we hope her story will inspire you to use your experiences as fuel to find your passion and make a difference in the world.