Prisoners hone new skills, find redemption as they build homes for others

Prisoners hone new skills, find redemption as they build homes for others

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — There are many reasons why The Fuller Center’s work in El Salvador has taken off in recent years, positioning the country in position this year to become the second Fuller Center international partner to reach the 1,000 home milestone.

(Editor’s note: Fuller Center Armenia was the first to hit the 1,000-home mark in the year 2000. Story here.)

The Fuller Center has been engaged with multiple partner nonprofits — such as The People Helping People Network and New Story Charity — and has seen an uptick in Fuller Center Global Builders service trips to the country, as well as steady financial support from Fuller Center donors.

Meanwhile, Salvadoran partner families have not only embraced the opportunity to contribute sweat equity in the building of their homes but also the integral component of repaying the costs of construction through zero-percent-interest mortgages that help others get the very same kind of hand-up into decent homes, making them givers themselves as they pay it forward. As homeowner keep making those repayments, the fund to build more homes grows like a snowball — even in warm El Salvador.

The government of El Salvador has enthusiastically embraced The Fuller Center’s efforts and worked hard to facilitate new projects and accelerate the approvals of land title transfers and permits. Much of that support can be attributed to Minister of Housing Michele Sol, who was once the mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, where she saw first-hand the uplifting impact Fuller Center homes had not just on hundreds of her constituents but also the community as a whole.

The government has further accelerated construction efforts with the use of prisoner labor where locations and situations are practical. Marco Castro, Program Manager for Fuller Center construction partner Gente Ayudandando Gente, says this is a complement to — not a substitute for — family and volunteer labor.

Aerial view of Nuevo Cuscatlán II, a 131-home community where prison labor played a key role in its rapid construction.

They help us move a lot faster in the construction process,” Castro said of the prisoners, whose efforts have helped with such large projects as the recent 131-home Nuevo Cuscatlán II community. “Of course, it’s important for families to be part of the sweat equity. The first month when we start a new project, families have to put in hours on the project so that they can see the challenges that the rest of the construction people are going to face. We want them to understand the difficulty of building a home so that they can take care of it afterward.”

As the prisoners help these large projects be completed at a faster rate, the families support them in many ways besides simply building alongside them when possible.

When we incorporate the inmates, they’re able to help us out in moving way quicker in all the construction stages,” Castro said. “The families cook breakfast and lunch for the inmates, so that’s the exchange. Families are really conscious of the help they’re getting, so they really invest in having good food for the inmates.”

Families of the 63-home El Espino community express their appreciation for prison laborers who helped them build and then move into new homes.

For each day the inmates work, they get another day reduced from their sentences. The more they work, the sooner they can get back to their families and a normal life.

It’s an opportunity for them to reduce their sentence, to be out in the open, eat different food, interact with different people and, of course, not be locked up,” Castro noted.

Of course, the inmates who are presented with these opportunities are not exactly the most hardened or dangerous criminals. They come from a pool of prisoners who are still in a position where they can turn their lives around.

They are in their trust phases,” Castro explained. “They’ve gone through a lot of psychological tests and have support. Inmates that had been related to gangs are not able to be in the trust phases or these types of programs just because we want to avoid having them in communities or spaces where they can get in trouble. They are aware of the consequences if somebody messes the opportunity up.”

Prison laborers work in the El Zonte community, currently under construction.

Still, the team at Gente Ayudando Gente works hand-in-hand with the government to make sure that partner families and communities are safe when the prisoners are on a nearby site.

The prisoners are assigned to specific areas,” Castro said. “There are guards looking out for the team, and they’re not allowed to move from that specific area. If somebody is causing problems like trying to sneak something in or have family members come into the construction spaces, they would change teams or lose their opportunity. But we at Gente are on top of that because that hurts us directly.”

Their work also is an audition of sorts as a handful may get the opportunity for gainful employment as they re-enter society.

We are always looking for new employees,” Castro said. “When they finish a sentence and the construction is done, we usually give some a second chance of reinsertion into society as a productive member by hiring them.”

Prison laborers help move items into the 63-home El Espino community as a resident looks on.

While acknowledging the practical benefits of utilizing prison labor, Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell notes there is a faith component to engaging those who are incarcerated and helping them turn their lives around.

One of the foundational principles of Christianity is redemption — that through Christ’s sacrifice we can put our sins and errors behind us,” Snell said. “This principle has been powerfully demonstrated in El Salvador as prisoners have worked side by side with volunteers in the building of new homes. When a prisoner, upon their release, has joined our construction crews, it truly makes the cycle complete.”

This is redemption in action, and it fulfills Jesus’ promise that caring for prisoners is caring for Him.”

The result is a win-win-win-win situation — for the families in need of decent places to live, for the organizations who seek to uplift and empower those families and communities, for the prisoners themselves and for a government that is committed to reducing crime and recidivism rates. 

We'd love to hear your comments!