Las Niñas del Tul, a dedicated NGO from Granada, Spain, has embarked on a transformative journey within the walls of a local prison. Through innovative participatory methodologies, they’ve crafted engaging activities that resonate with young inmates, from music sessions to Hogwarts-themed events. These initiatives offer a creative outlet while promoting teamwork, leadership and self-reflection.
Participation is crucial. Without it, more youths end up in detention. Many young offenders I’ve encountered believe that earlier guidance or awareness of youth organisations might have altered their life trajectories, particularly those who started working at a young age.
Carmen María talks about the project’s mission to bring positive change to young lives behind bars.
Can you share a bit about how the project idea was born?
Our organisation is based in Granada, southern Spain. We’ve primarily worked with the Erasmus Plus programme at European level, where we have focused on non-formal education and the European Solidarity Corps. A significant part of our mission is to promote inclusion. We’ve worked with individuals from diverse backgrounds, including migrants, people with disabilities and those from underprivileged neighbourhoods.
When discussing potential projects with our youth volunteers, many expressed an interest in supporting hospitalised children undergoing cancer treatment and young individuals in prison. The idea for this project began during the onset of COVID. While we couldn’t immediately work with the hospitalised children, we approached the Granada prison about organising activities for incarcerated young people.
This initiative marked the beginning of the project we’re discussing today. Over time, we’ve taken gradual steps, and with the support of the prison’s new director, who has a background in psychology, we were able to make significant progress.
What kind of activities or sessions have you conducted in prison?
Our activities are tailored to the unique environment and the needs of the young inmates. We conduct workshops on life skills, vocational training, art, culture and even physical fitness. For instance, our music sessions involve inmates writing and composing their own songs, reflecting their experiences and hopes. Our gender equality sessions use theatre as a medium, with inmates enacting skits that challenge stereotypes and promote understanding. The sports sessions are not just about physical activity; they are also focused on team-building and leadership. We’ve even introduced mindfulness and meditation sessions, helping inmates find inner peace and cope with the stresses of prison life.
How did you initially engage with incarcerated young people and understand their needs?
Our first activity introduced them to European Youth Programmes. We paired this with mindfulness and yoga sessions, aiming to address their emotional well-being. Through these sessions, we also facilitated youth participation activities, where we informed them about various programmes and asked about their needs and interests.
However, there were challenges. Many of these young individuals had never participated in youth activities or volunteering. Additionally, while we encouraged them to express themselves in writing, some struggled with this form of expression. We had to be patient, offering support and guidance to help them articulate their thoughts.
Given the challenges you mentioned, like hesitancy to speak and writing difficulties, how did you help them express themselves?
Initially, during the European Youth Week in 2021, we informed them about various programmes. We then divided them into smaller groups of three or four, based on their comfort levels. We observed their dynamics and adjusted groupings accordingly.
The real challenge came during a 10-day training course, where we had to manage large groups. We divided them into smaller groups, ensuring a mix of personalities and backgrounds. We also had translators to bridge language barriers. Our approach was to create a safe space where they could share without fear of judgement or repercussions.
What typical needs and interests did the young individuals express in group sessions?
The primary concern was always stress management and emotion regulation. Many of these young people come from challenging backgrounds and lack the resources or tools to cope. Despite their young age, around 18 to 21, many haven’t had the opportunity to learn about these issues due to a lack of schooling or unstable family situations. Like any youth group, they enjoy music, dance and socialising. Some are also keen on managing their addictions, especially smoking.
They are generally open to any activities we offer, as everything is a new experience for them. Last year, we had a group come in to perform, and the inmates were very impressed. They are discovering new interests and even themselves in the process. The primary focus is on mental health and well-being, followed by other activities like music and motor-related interests. We also introduced various topics during the training, which captured their interest and motivated them to work on their projects. For example, we chose a Hogwarts theme for a 10-day intensive programme, inspired by Harry Potter.
Could you elaborate on that?
The idea for the Hogwarts theme emerged when we started to create a movie to showcase our experiences within a one-minute timeframe. Given that we couldn’t include any pictures of participants, we had to be creative. Discussions revealed that participants were fascinated by magicians, leading us to the idea of connecting it with the Harry Potter universe. However, the main reason for choosing this theme was to create an engaging visual representation of our experiences without revealing participants’ identities.
Given the limited freedom in prison and potential communication barriers with the outside world, to what extent can young inmates organise activities themselves?
Most of the activities we initially did inside the prison were based on external ideas. However, our goal has been to empower these young individuals to organise activities using the resources they have.
We aim to conduct workshops and training courses to equip a group of 10-15 youths with the skills to facilitate and gather information from their peers. They could then have regular sessions to discuss and propose activities based on their needs. For instance, if there’s a need to discuss sexual diversity, they could organise a session on that topic. They can also celebrate events like National Book Day.
Can you tell us about your team’s composition and the criteria for selecting team members for this project?
At the start, we were advised not to go into the prison alone. So, we always had a team with us. Trust was the main thing we looked for when picking team members. We needed everyone to back up the lead and not challenge them in front of the participants. Our team was diverse. We had trainers, helpers, teachers, psychologists, social workers, translators and even people from Morocco who spoke Arabic or French. We also had youth workers and a yoga instructor.
The most important qualities for our team were motivation, understanding and trust. While we always saw the best side of the participants, we needed our team to be understanding but also careful. Most of our team members were people we knew and trusted from before.
How did the prison administration support your efforts?
The prison administration saw the positive impact of our activities. The young people were engaged and motivated, which was a significant change from their usual attitude. The voluntary nature of our programmes meant that only those genuinely interested participated. The administration recognised the personal growth and skills these activities offered the young people.
Can you provide examples of individuals who were profoundly influenced by this training course?
One notable example is a young man who had previously participated in our organisation’s activities before his incarceration. He was a university student and now he is continuing his studies. He’s keen on participating in our activities and even takes his free days to attend seminars we organise. He’s an exception, but his enthusiasm helps foster a positive environment and encourages others.
This project is a remarkable example of positive change, showing that meaningful personal development is possible even within prison walls. It emphasises the importance of innovative engagement, opening doors to new experiences and a more hopeful future for young inmates. Thanks to this project, an idea emerged among the incarcerated young people to establish a youth association within the facility, similar to a ‘youth council’.
About the project
European Solidarity Corps
EU Youth Programme Priority:
Inclusion and Diversity
Youth Participation / Promoting Participation for All
Youth Participation / Skills Development and Volunteering
Due to the innovative nature of the project, the challenges regarding dissemination were unique as well. During the training, the project leaders couldn’t take photographs, videos, or audio recordings owing to prison regulations prohibiting mobile phones, cameras, or recorders. In fact, any visibility action would have required authorisation from the Ministry, as the project was conducted in a penitentiary centre under the Spanish Government. Despite these challenges in dissemination, the visibility of this project greatly benefited from winning the Inclusion & Diversity prize at the SALTO Awards, an annual contest that celebrates outstanding youth projects across Europe.
Las Niñas del Tul, Albolote Penitentiary Center.