Interview with Saskia de Niño Rivera
Saskia Niño de Rivera holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico, and a certiﬁcate in Criminology and Criminal Policy from the NaDonal Institute of Criminal Sciences in Mexico. She is currently the director of Reinserta, A.C., a non-proﬁt organization that she co-founded at the age of 24 with the goal of creating a safer Mexico by working on the prison system. She has worked on several projects with a focus on kidnapping, risk factors for adolescents who commit high-social-impact crimes, and maternity in prison. She has inﬂuenced policy related to the Mexican criminal system reform with the most notable impact being the creation of the “motherhood in prison” clause in the National Criminal Enforcement Law in 2015. She has also given public talks on a wide range of topics, such as social fabric, reintegration, security, and minors in prison. She has received numerous awards for her work, including the “Leadership in Public Life Award 2019” by Vital Choices, the “Social Compromise Recognition 2019” by CEMEFI, and the “International Award 2020” by the Diane Von Furstenberg Foundation.
Q: Can you tell us about your background and how you became interested in the area of criminal justice and community reintegration? Were there any pivotal moments, or was this interest gradually developed and fostered?
Dr. de Niño Rivera: From a very young age I was interested in community service, especially helping women. At the age of 14, I started helping pregnant teens who were homeless. It shocked me that people living so close to me lived in such different conditions than I did. Furthermore, a family member was kidnapped and I saw how the negotiation took place; I took interest in how it all developed and started working for a company that does ransom negotiations, for which I am still an advisor today. That is where I realized that the system was broken, and by doing further research I found out that there was no formal reintegration system, but rather a system that seeks revenge for crimes. I also understood that people who committed crimes had a backstory that led to them committing these crimes. This encouraged me to try and solve the root of the problem.
Dr. de Niño Rivera: In my friend and co-founder, Mercedes, I found someone who shares the same interests as me, and the same passion for creating solutions for the aforementioned issues. It is very difficult to find people who want to work in the prison system, or anything related to it. Not only did we find that the judicial and penitentiary systems were based on flawed laws and statutes, but also that they were very corrupt, making attempts to improve them an uphill battle. Mexican society shows a lot of apathy towards inmates as people with basic human rights and their living conditions, and there is a general lack of programs that try to resolve the underlying issues that lead to crime. Rather, the focus is on punishing offenders for a period of time and subsequently releasing them back into a broken society. We decided to start in key areas of the system, places that we could influence directly and quickly: juvenile delinquency and motherhood in prison.
Q: What do you consider to be Reinserta’s main achievements? How has Reinserta impacted individuals involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems and society?
Dr. de Niño Rivera: Children that live in prison were virtually invisible. They ha no daycare, no nutrition plan, nothing that any other child needs to develop at an early age. We put these children on the map and on human rights groups' agendas. We have been a bridge between society and the prison system, by condemning violence, and pointing out the flaws in the system that lead to a vicious cycle. Through our organization, these issues are now being heard by the National Security Council, SIPINNA (National System for the Protection of Minors), DIF (Federal Department for Family Development) and other major government departments. We have also pushed for media coverage to portray the prison system as a place for rehabilitation and social reintegration instead of exclusion and marginalization. When you have such a broken system, little things are great achievements, such as basic nurseries for children and the success rate Reinserta has had with the rehabilitation, from both drugs and crime, of juvenile delinquents. Personally, these feats have been huge motivators to strive for bigger things and a sign that we are doing something right and therefore must keep going no matter what.
Q: What are the main challenges you have encountered while working to pursue the goals of Reinserta? What are some of the challenges that you have experienced as a woman working in the prison system and how did you overcome them?
Dr. de Niño Rivera: Working in the prison system has been a huge challenge in many ways. First, because of the apathy the Mexican society has towards the prison system - people don't know the difference between criminal justice and criminal vengeance. It has become more attractive by increasing the length of prison sentences rather than investing in true rehabilitation and integration. Another challenge is that Mexico is an overly elitist country, so it is hard for more privilege people to understand that no one chooses where they are born and that certain life circumstances may make disadvantaged people more prone to commit crimes. As a woman, we have broken gender barriers - where the prison system used to be considered as a man's territory, the majority of Reinserta's staff are female, and we have proved that women are just as qualified to lead workshops and have a positive impact in male penitentiaries.
Q: Could you name some of the most pressing challenges for the Mexican criminal justice system with regard to the field of forensic psychology?
Dr. de Niño Rivera: One of the biggest challenges that the Mexican prison system has is the implementation of restorative justice and penitentiary intelligence, so that we can have more justice inside of prison. In order to prevent and investigate crime, it is totally necessary that we have an understanding of the risk factors and causes of crime. People inside of prison can really help the criminal justice system to understand behavioral and socioeconomic patterns (e.g., risk factors) so that we as a society can understand where the red flags are and start making important changes as a country to prevent crime from happening over and over again.
Q: What can other countries learn from these achievements and challenges? From your experience, what message would you give to countries that emphasize punishment (e.g., loss of liberty) over reintegration or restorative justice?
Dr. de Niño Rivera: I would say, for countries that prioritize punishment, that social reintegration is an opportunity to induce change in their systems. It could make their systems more effective; not only would it help emphasize human rights, but also create a system that actually works. Time in jail and all that comes with it (e.g., precarious conditions, long sentences and mistreatment) can create feelings of vengeance in many inmates if they don’t have access to effective programming that helps them prepare for their life upon release. This can eventually backfire on us in terms of reoffending. We have seen people that have come out of the prison system and have refrained from reoffending because of the programs they completed while in prison.
Q: One of the areas Reinserta focuses on is maternity in prison and children who grow up in prison. How did the idea of working with children who are born and raised in prison come about?
Dr. de Niño Rivera: Once we entered the penitentiary system, we realized how complex, rotten and corrupt it all was. We could not cover everything, so we had to prioritize. Sadly, you can't change the system as a whole and you can't win them all. Among the most urgent priorities, without a doubt, were the children who live in prison. It is not a child’s fault to be born in prison. Yet, these children are completely forgotten by the government and by society; we call them “the invisible kids.” These children grow up in a segregated environment in which violence is normalized. Their childhood and adolescence are very far from normal; we need to work with these kids and help them have a healthy and normative development. If we don't intervene, they may become the next generation of people who will offend.
Q: Another focus of Reinserta is on young people who commit delinquent acts. What are the main challenges for the reintegraYon of this group into Mexican society?
Dr. de Niño Rivera: Working with teens is very complicated. Adolescence is a complex developmental period where teens undergo a lot of physical and psychological changes. On top of that, they are facing a lot of obstacles once they get out of prison, such as a very strong social stigma that diminishes their opportunities to live a crime-free life. In addition, Mexico is also a country where drug traffickers and drug dealing are also often idolized by young Mexican people. There is a huge “narco” culture that leads to the normalization of organized crime and even inspires kids of all ages to become involved.
Q: Latin American countries are often underrepresented in international organizations that focus on forensic mental health services and the intersection between mental health and the law. How can an international organization, such as IAFMHS, work better to integrate and represent professionals from Latin America, such as Mexico?
Dr. de Niño Rivera: In Mexico as in Latin America in general, the criminal justice system is corrupted, and the concept of justice often forgotten. Thus, I think the best way for IAFMHS to work on the integration and representation of Latin American countries would be to approach and collaborate with organizations like Reinserta in order to prove to the governments that these projects are indeed viable and should be implemented on a larger scale.
Q: You founded Reinserta at the age of 24 and are not only extremely passionate about your work but also very successful with it. What would you recommend to our students/young professionals who might feel similarly passionate about a social justice issue and aspire to make an impact in the field as you did with Reinserta?
Dr. de Niño Rivera: To all students and everyone who wants to join this field, you have to know there will be times where things are not going to be pretty, and you will be on the edge of quitting, thinking “I can't do this anymore, this is just too heartbreaking, I’m making no difference” or “the penitentiary system is a complete mess.” Whenever you find yourself in one of these moments, all I can say is that you have to be brave, passionate, and completely in love with what you are doing. This is what makes you wake up every day and say, “this is worth it, I'm going to give it my all and make change happen.” My advice would be to always “follow through," even if you feel like you’re swimming against the stream, follow through, because when you achieve change in someone's life or in the system, even if it’s tiny, you will realize that it was all worth it.
Q: Is there anyone in particular that has been influential for/throughout your career?
Dr. de Niño Rivera: There have been a lot of people, mostly my team. It is amazing to work with people that share the same passion as you. It is reassuring to know that you are not the only one fighting a cause. Everyone that works at Reinserta is an inspiration to me and the life stories of the people we help are the fuel that keeps us going.
*This Spotlight interview was published in the 2020 IAFMHS Newsletter, Autumn Edition.