“Inmates running the Asylum” – Lessons from El Pueblito

A scene from the 2011 Mel Gibson movie: Get the Gringo

Some time back, I watched the Mel Gibson movie “Get the Gringo.” wherein he is sent to the fictional El Pueblito prison.  The prison is run by the prisoners themselves.  Though amusing, I could not comprehend that such a thing actually existed anywhere in the world.

Doing a little research, I found that El Pueblito was a real-life prison built in 1956 in Tijuana, Mexico, as part of an experiment where researchers, wanting to help inmates readjust to life in the outside world after serving their sentence, allowed their families to stay with them.   Over the years, this flexible arrangement was abused and some of these inmates began ruling over the prison.

The El Pueblito, model-prison-turned-law-enforcement nightmare was effectively destroyed about eleven years back on August 20, 2002.  On that day, approximately 2,000 law-enforcement officers stormed the facility to transfer many prisoners to other institutions, evict entire families that lived at El Pueblito and begin the destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses that had been built in the prison patio.

Things probably got out of hand at El Pueblito and a well intentioned controlled experiment went haywire.  I am not sure if anyone went back and researched on the lessons learned from the El Pueblito experiment.

CNN carried the following news feature on August 04, 2013:


The Washington Post was the first to carry a news report about the Honduras prison system on August 02, 2013 based on a Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, report released the same day.  The President of Honduras, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, called it an “unacceptable situation.”

Maybe the situation in Honduras was a unique one.  But this may just be another example of a trend that’s increasing across countries in the world.

Costs of incarceration have increased in the United States and all over the world, and continue to rise.  Private prisons have come into existence in quite a few countries. Governments keep trying to find ways to curtail prison costs with little success.

Is this be a disruptive trend? Could it just be a matter of time before government run prison systems or private ones give way to prisons run by the inmates themselves?


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