José David Toro

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2001
Fundación Horizontes de Libertad
This description of José David Toro's work was prepared when José David Toro was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001 .


In order to break the cycle of violence, incarceration, continued violence, and recidivism in Colombia, José David Toro is creating "Peace Laboratories" in prisons that prepare inmates for life outside, coupled with businesses that provide work opportunities and crucial, positive contact with society.

The New Idea

During seven years as a prisoner, José David Toro worked with other prisoners to investigate and determine what prisoners need most to transition to life outside jail. Building on the efforts he started while still an inmate, José David, who was released for good behavior in 2000, has created a two-part response to the problems prisoners face in violent prisons as well as in the outside communities where released prisoners typically fail to integrate into society. "Peace Laboratories" provide socialization and skills training, which are sorely missing in Colombian prisons. On top of this, businesses in which inmates and former prisoners can contribute meaningfully–starting with a delivery company, since mail and package delivery is a service that inmates take very seriously–engage them in productive activity, create incentives for good behavior, allow contact with society outside the penitentiary, and build foundations for professional growth when the prisoner is released. Prisoner-led businesses such as delivery services also deliver a message to the world outside the prison: that current and former prisoners can be responsible and productive members of society. This reinforces the activities of agencies and organizations that would conduct socialization, job training, and work-release employment activities if they did not fear for their safety working with prisoners, and for the success of their endeavors. It also amplifies the opportunities for former prisoners, which in turn creates greater incentives for good behavior to attain early release.

The Problem

Colombia's prisons are beset by violence. They are especially violent because the forces whose clashes create so much conflict and hardship throughout Colombian society–guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug traffickers–are represented in prisons as well, in concentrated form. Murders and other violent crime are commonplace within prison walls. One recent and high-profile example of prison violence took place in La Modelo prison on July 2, 2001, when ten inmates died during an outbreak of fighting. However, though ten prisoners murdered in one prison on one day is exceptional, ten dying per month is standard: In Picaleña prison in Tolima state, where José David has focused his efforts, monthly homicides typically ranged between twelve and fifteen. Picaleña is only one of one hundred seventy-three prisons in Colombia.These levels of violence can be attributed to a variety of factors. Overcrowding exacerbates the powder-keg effect of combining in one place so many violent individuals, many of them representing opposing factions in Colombia's armed conflict. It also makes it more difficult for prison guards to respond to situations as they arise. Additionally, there is significant corruption among prison authorities, illustrated by the fact that five of the last seven directors of the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute have been investigated on corruption claims. Perhaps most significantly, Colombia's prisons do not address the rehabilitation of inmates. There are no socialization programs that would promote reform of prisoners' violent ways, reduce tensions, and prepare them for life after release. Neither do there tend to be work programs that would afford well-behaved inmates productive ways to engage themselves and perhaps lay foundations for integrating into the work world when they leave prison. Where such programs do exist, positions are limited–in the case of Picaleña, there are about two hundred work-release slots. This paucity of opportunities is due in large part to the reluctance of local businesses to participate as employers of work-release inmates. Without active socialization, and without much chance of earning work-release, violent prisoners are therefore not quick to reform their behavior. The prospect of early release is no great incentive toward good behavior either. When Colombian prisoners are let out, they are often unprepared for life outside the prison. Many prisoners grow very accustomed to incarceration, and dread the uncertainty of free life. And job prospects for former prisoners are limited. In this context, prisoners do not abate violent behavior in the hope of early release, because early release is not necessarily desirable. Ultimately, when prisoners are released, the problems they encounter also lead to recidivism. According to Colombia's Ministry of Justice, 95 percent of released prisoners return to crime and end up back in jail. In the case of Picaleña, this translates into a grim reality: Of the twenty prisoners who are typically released each day into the local community of Ibagué, nineteen will be back. Some prisoners will even leave belongings at the jail upon release because they know they will be returning "home." In the meantime, many will have joined or rejoined guerrilla, paramilitary, or drug-trafficking groups, which are profoundly damaging forces within the country. For these results, Colombia's taxpayers are paying $4,000 annually per prisoner–equal to the cost of schooling seventeen children for the year–for each of the sixty-three thousand prisoners in Colombian jails.

The Strategy

José David's responses to these problems aim to prepare prisoners for the moment they leave prison and re-engage with the outside world. Their benefits, however, affect inmates while they are still in prison as well.To provide the essential service of socialization, José David created a "Peace Laboratory" in Picaleña prison. He calls the socialization center a Peace Laboratory for its role in engendering peaceful coexistence in the prison community, and peaceful individuals who will successfully integrate into society when they are released. A prisoner himself when he began the initiative, José David was uniquely attuned to inmates' needs in creating this center. José David culled and analyzed information from inmates in a diagnostic study, and then built the Peace Laboratory to deliver a service that prepares them for life outside prison through a combination of psychological, educational, and creative support programs. There is a particular focus on development of work skills: Volunteers teach inmates accounting and how to start small businesses. José David launched the Peace Laboratory in 1999, the first initiative of the Horizons of Freedom Foundation, which he founded with a group of forty-two prisoners, former prisoners, and family members of Picaleña inmates. Since then, the murder rate in Picaleña has reduced dramatically from the twelve-fifteen per month range. There was a thirteen month stretch with only one homicide. Colombia has taken notice of these results. Universities in Ibagué have invited José David to speak on conflict resolution. More significantly, the Peace Laboratory project was recognized as one of Colombia's top five peace-making initiatives by El Tiempo newspaper, La Semana magazine and Redepaz, a civil society peace organization. These observers note the broader implications of José David's success in Picaleña: He has succeeded in creating one place in the whole nation where left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary members coexist in peace–in a prison, no less. His methodologies are therefore valuable throughout Colombia's many initiatives to resolve its armed conflict through dialogue and mutual understanding. On top of socialization, José David has created job opportunities for prisoners, providing outlets–and incentives–for the responsible behavior learned in the Peace Laboratory. He launched a courier service in 2000, soon after he himself was released from prison on good behavior. The courier business was chosen because of the significance of letters to prisoners. Letters are inmates' lifeblood. Colombia's unreliable postal system leaves many of them feeling frustrated and abandoned. Prisoners are especially conscientious about proper delivery of letters and packages, and this translates into responsibility and pride in serving customers outside prison with quality courier service. The company, now called Comp&[email protected], has expanded to serve the changing needs of the market by providing a personal delivery service for groceries and other purchases. Although consumers are increasingly busy and therefore willing to pay for the convenience of various types of deliveries, few companies provide the service, perhaps because profit margins are not particularly high. The business suits Comp&[email protected], however. While the company strives to be profitable, it is not looking to make huge profits so much as to generate employment with decent wages in an honest, transparent work environment. José David also intends to move into the market for telephone and Internet orders in Colombia. Already, Comp&[email protected] has won a contract with a small grocery store for telephone orders. The company started out operating out of José David's garage but has moved to an office in a shopping mall that he was able to secure at a discount. As of mid-2001, the company operated with a staff of nine Picaleña prisoners, five former prisoners, and three family members of prisoners. Staff carry cellular phones and provide service at competitive speeds. As with many courier services, the messengers use bicycles and public transportation. The company calculates that it can break even this year. José David has set his sights on expanding to one hundred thirty-five employees within the next five years. In the long term, José David's goal is to turn Comp&[email protected] into a nationwide chain, linking the prisons in all of Colombia's cities in a national courier service. In addition, the Horizons of Freedom Foundation is beginning other businesses, also chosen according to the needs and skills of the prisoners. For example, as 83 percent of the prisoners in Picaleña are from rural backgrounds (according to the Foundation's data) and the soil of Tolima state is highly productive, they have begun to set up a farm on land that they are going to buy at a discount from a landowner who wants to support the initiative. They have also budgeted for the creation of a furniture company, taking advantage of the manual abilities of the prisoners. In addition to simply delivering correspondence and ordered items, the business delivers a message to the public. By proving themselves trustworthy and capable of getting the job done, its employees present a different view of prisoners, encouraging solidarity rather than pity or fear. Prisoners are gaining a respect that they previously did not have in Ibagué. José David has succeeded in placing twelve prisoners eligible for work release in jobs at other courier services. The governor of Tolima demonstrated his confidence in José David and the foundation by writing a letter of recommendation for him, the first time he had ever done so for a former prisoner. The Chamber of Commerce and the National Commerce Federation have endorsed Comp&[email protected] The image projected in the public sphere due to the Comp&[email protected] business combined with the improved figures relating to behavior inside the prison have resulted in the fear of working in the prisons going down, so businesses, universities, and state organizations that perform job training have begun to return. For example, one company conducts a socialization program with prisoners through soccer, and the national training institute, SENA, is undertaking more training programs within the prison. The Foundation constantly lobbies to promote prison reform and to provide opportunities outside of jail for nonviolent criminals.José David and his colleagues have begun to initiate the program in other prisons, beginning by making contact with the working groups on human rights and prisoners' concerns that are a fixture in every prison. The working groups in turn select the prisoners most suited to initiating the program there. José David and his colleagues have begun working in the District Prison in Bogotá, and they have established a relationship with the working group of La Modelo prison. The Foundation has also been in preliminary contact with several other prisons, including the Bellavista prison in Medellín and the national prison La Picota in Bogotá, both of which have responded with enthusiasm.

The Person

From a young age, José David was involved in community service. He was particularly influenced by his older brother, to whom he refers as a "social fighter" and a teacher who taught "social poetry." The area where he was raised was heavily influenced by the leftist movement, particularly because of the pressing need for land reform. As a teenager, José David participated in a march for educational reform and was beaten by the police. The beating left him with a tremendous disdain for the state and for state authorities. This, combined with his desire to create real social change in Colombia, led him to join a guerrilla group, for which he was incarcerated for seven years. While in prison, José David remained committed to his social ideals but began to change his mind about how he would work to achieve them. He focused on the notions of human dignity and harmonious coexistence. During his seven years in prison, José David participated in the prison human rights committee, began to study community psychology through a distance learning program, and led a small business that produced cleaning equipment. He began to develop the idea for "Peace Laboratories" while in La Modelo prison in 1995. As a punishment for his ideas and his participation in the human rights committee, José David was transferred from La Modelo to the Picaleña prison, but continued to pursue the idea, even when he was transferred again to another prison and then back to Picaleña. Eventually he founded the Horizons of Freedom Foundation in 1998 to promote the rights of prisoners within and outside of prisons and to create real economic opportunities for them upon their release. José David is president of the board of directors of the Foundation.