By Ezra Fieser
SAN CRISTOBAL, Dominican Republic (Reuters) - Gone are the satellite dishes that once crowded the prison rooftop, feeding signals to flat-screen TVs in the private suites for which drug lords and other wealthy inmates used to pay upwards of $25,000.
In their place classrooms are being constructed, creating more space for the prison to reach its goal of zero percent illiteracy and offer university-level courses.
The transformation of Najayo prison, long a symbol of the overcrowding and corruption that plagues Latin American jails, is part of a dramatic overhaul that has reshaped the Dominican Republic's penitentiary system.
Ten years after the country opened its first prison designed with a focus on education and clean living conditions and staffed by graduates from a newly created academy for penitentiary studies, the New Model of Prison Management is gaining recognition from other countries in the region trying to reduce prison populations and cut recidivism rates.
"What's remarkable about the Dominican Republic's example is that it has taken place in a country that has the same socioeconomic conditions as other Latin American countries," said Elias Carranza, director for the United Nations' Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders.
Those conditions include high poverty and crime rates, a poor education system and rampant unemployment, all of which contribute to high incarceration rates.
LIVING 'LIKE ANIMALS'
In the old days, bribes from wealthy prisoners procured suites with kitchens and bathrooms, as well as TVs and housekeeping services from other inmates. The common population fought for space in prison wings so cutthroat they earned nicknames like "Vietnam war."
"There were people sleeping on the floor all over the place, men sleeping standing up like animals," said Herman de Leon Polanco, 58, who has served five years of a six-year sentence in Najayo for kidnapping. "It was hell."
Today, de Leon sleeps in a tidy bunk bed in a cell shared with three others and gets together twice a day to share experiences and pray with fellow inmates.
"They treat us like human beings, not just criminals," de Leon said.
Just under 250 of every 100,000 people in the Dominican Republic are locked up - fewer than Brazil, El Salvador and Panama but more than Mexico, Honduras and Colombia, according to statistics compiled by the U.K.-based International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS).
European countries historically have had much lower rates: France has 103 prisoners per 100,000; Germany has 78. The United States has one of the world's highest rates, according to the center's figures: 707.
'INMATES DESERVE AN EDUCATION'
One striking difference between the traditional Dominican prison system and the new model shows up in the recidivism rates - the number of inmates who commit crimes within three years of being released.
Officials said less than 5 percent of inmates released from the model system re-offend; in the traditional system the rate is 50 percent.
Change began when Andrew Coyle, a British prison warden-turned-reformer, visited the country in 2003 at the invitation of the government as director of the ICPS. He found a system that was "intolerable," he said. "They knew it had to change."
The military and national police were in charge. Coyle recommended the attorney general's office create a new academy to train staff who had no affiliation with either.
The model system, which runs 18 of the Dominican Republic's 35 prisons, emphasizes treating inmates more humanely by providing each with a bed, a desk in a classroom, and proper medical attention, said Ysmael Paniagua, a career warden and prison administrator who is now the system's director.
"Their human rights need to be respected. Inmates deserve a healthy meal ... an education, and access to healthcare," he said.
Officials have a strict zero-tolerance policy for human rights violations - for prison guards.
"We don't hire any guards who have had any previous experience with the military or police. We train people ourselves," he said. "We don't want any connection to the traditional model because it is corrupt and corrupting."
Basic education is compulsory, while inmates can obtain bachelor's degrees in law or psychology.
"I didn't know how to read much until the new system was put in place," said Anderson Montero, 37, who has served 14 years for murder in Najayo, just west of the capital, Santo Domingo. Up for parole in two years, he says he wants to continue to study whenever he is released.
The new system costs as much as double the old one, but its officials say the government will save over the long term.
"When you have so many fewer people re-offending, the societal costs are substantially lower. There's no comparison," Paniagua said.
The reforms have not solved everything. Earlier this year, a riot in a prison managed by the model system left two people dead and several wounded.
Even so, success has been substantial enough to lead other countries to begin copying it.
Ecuador in 2012 said it would implement reforms based on the Dominican model. Governments in El Salvador, Panama, Honduras, Chile and elsewhere are adopting parts of the model, according to the ICPS and the U.N.
"Before," said Carranza, "when I would go to a government and say, ‘Look at what they're doing in Switzerland,' they'd say, ‘That's a different world.' But now I can say, ‘Look at the Dominican Republic,' and they listen."
(Editing by David Adams and Prudence Crowther)