Modern chain gang. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

It's no secret that the United States prison system is a failure. Dismal statistics abound about the growing prison population. Despite having only 5 percent of the world's population, the United States incarcerates a quarter of the world's prisoners, according to the Economist.

With that massive population comes a litany of woes: overcrowding, egregious racial disparity in incarceration rates, and less money spent on education and public infrastructure. The total direct monetary cost to taxpayers is estimated at $39 billion, money that could be spent on badly needed public education and infrastructure.

But of all the statistics, the recidivism rate is perhaps the most bleak. According to the National Institute of Justice, 76.6 percent of released prisoners are rearrested within five years in the United States.

Compare that with the recidivism rate of prisoners who have participated in the world's first prisoner-organized-and-owned cooperative in Puerto Rico: Cooperativa de Servicios ARIGOS. Only six percent of participants were rearrested in the past ten years. The general recidivism rate in Puerto Rico is 50 percent.

The cooperative was established by prisoners who were looking for a market for their crafts, according to PolicyLink. The group successfully lobbied then governor of Puerto Rico, Sila Maria Calderonto change legislation to allow those convicted of crimes to participate in cooperatives.

Each prisoner gets a voice and a vote in all decisions made by the cooperative. Their efforts bring in revenue for the prison, but more importantly, they build skills, a sense of personal investment and self-respect. Prisoners can earn more in the cooperative than they can working for the prison, that benefits their lives and allows them to help support their families while in prison. And the skills they gain give them foothold for life outside of bars.

Some have likened the dominant paradigm of prison labor in the United States to "corporate slavery." Prisoners are released back into society with few skills and little confidence or vision in the possibility of investing in themselves and their communities. The results are clear in high recidivism and the overall growing incarceration rate.

Roberto Luis Rodriguez Rosario, one of the cooperative owners in Puerto Rico, tells PolicyLink:

"We've learned how to run a business, and some former inmates now have their own small businesses outside as a result. If you can change the way people think in prison, you can do anything. It is a model for social change."

For more on Rosario's experience with the coop, check out the recent interview here from the Sustainable Economies Law Center.

Nina Ignaczak


Nina Ignaczak

Nina edits and publishes the Planet Detroit newsletter ( and writes and edits stories about all aspects of people and place.