Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Alternative punishments in Brazil promote inmate health, literacy

Via forensic psychologist Karen Franklin at her blog, In the News, I was fascinated to learn of this July 10 AP story describing a couple of new initiatives in Brazilian prisons that merit consideration for US import:
Prisoners in the small mountain town of Santa Rita do Sapucai, in southeastern Brazil, can shave one day off their sentences for every three days spent generating energy for the local township by pedaling stationary bikes.

Not only do the prisoners benefit, but so do local dog walkers, joggers, bicyclists, children and strolling couples: The generated power lights lamps along a riverside promenade that was heretofore abandoned after dark.

Lots of local citizens chipped in to create the program: A judge got the idea from reports of U.S. gyms using stationary bikes to generate energy, police contributed old bicycles, and engineers transformed them into stationary bikes and hooked them up to batteries donated by local businesses.
With prisons spending so much on healthcare costs, that's an extremely interesting approach. The program has only been operational for the past three months, so there's no data yet on long-term effects and benefits, but it's sure a clever idea.

Another fascinating approach recently implemented in Brazil promotes "Redemption through Reading. Wrote Franklin:

A federal "Redemption through Reading" program allows prisoners in four federal penitentiaries to shave up to 48 days a year off of their sentences. In the labor-intensive program, a judge reads each prisoner's book report and decides on a sentence reduction of up to four days per book, for a maximum of 12 books per year. The prisons are offering similar time-reduction incentives for taking classes ranging from the elementary school to college level.

These types of educational programs are commonplace in Europe. Indeed, the European Prison Education Association sees prisoner education as a "moral right." They used to be widespread in U.S. prisons, too. But in 1994, with the elimination of federal funding for prisoner education, the number of higher-education programs in prison plummeted overnight from more than 350 -- serving about 40,000 prisoners -- to fewer than a dozen, despite their proven efficacy in reducing recidivism.
According to the AP story:
inmates are able to choose from a wide range of genres, including literature, science, philosophy and classics.
To guard against cheating, participants must write a summary of each book, which is reviewed by a judge. The magistrate then decides whether to grant a sentence reduction of up to four days per book, according to the decree that appeared [in June] in the government's official gazette. Capped at 12 books a year, the program can shave up to 48 days a year off of participants' sentences.

That's many times the number of books the average Brazilian reads. A recent survey by Pro-Livro, the lobbying arm of Brazil's publishing industry, suggested the average Brazilian finishes just 2.1 books a year. Though Brazil has made great strides in reducing illiteracy in recent years, one in 10 citizens over the age of 15 still can't read, according to the 2010 census.
Promoting exercise and reading through such incentives makes loads of sense to me, and in the US there's be no need to physically carry a battery to and from the prison each day: Here it's possible for customers to simply sell power back to the grid. The reading program might be cheaper and more effective for scaling up to hire a retired teacher or two to judge inmate book reports. The money saved through reduced sentences would more than cover the cost and free up the judges' time.

Still, Brazilians are thinking outside the box, as the cliche goes, about ways to make imprisonment more constructive. In part, this is to ease overcrowding and to reduce prison costs. Brazil's incarceration rate is low compared to the United States but high compared to the rest of the world (253 per 100,000 in Brazil compared to 743 in the USA; the median incarceration rate for South American countries is 175, and more than half of countries in the world have incarceration rates below 150 per 100,000, according to the World Prison Population List).

Certainly, these programs are enduring the same sorts of reactionary criticisms they would here, but at the conclusion of the AP story a prison official offered an effective retort:
The bike initiative and other sentence-reduction programs have come under criticism from victims' advocates and others who contend they coddle people who are meant to be paying for sometimes heinous crimes.

Prison director [Gilson Rafael] Silva disagrees.

"People say that we're turning prisons into a kind of luxury hotel," said Silva. "But this is the only hotel I know of where no one wants to stay."


ckikerintulia said...

Interesting indeed. Veers too far from punishment for TOC folks. (I've gotten jaded and sarcastic.)

gravyrug said...

With appropriate limits on eligibility for such programs, both sound good to me. If you think of prison as a place where prisoners pay for their crimes, letting them do so by literally giving back to the community (as in the power generating system), or by learning something that would make them more valuable to society makes perfect sense.

Malik Akbar said...

Interesting, but I'm leery of anything that creates an economic or political dependency on the existence of a prison population. Sounds like a good idea in principle, but I think you risk creating an incentive to lock people up.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like it could be a cool way to cool the inmates and staff.

Anonymous said...

There is already a dependence on prisoners and on crime and drugs. Think of all the people that are employed by locking people up. Think of all the people that would be suddenly out of a job if crime and drugs all stopped overnight. All the police, judges lawyers,security guards, prison wardens , owners of prison COMPANIES, people that supply food , clothing , shelter to prisons, and companies that cater to the prisons, towns built around prisons would all be INSTANTLY OUT OF A JOB.

Anonymous said...

When a former inmate gets out and finds a job, they become a consumer again. They buy groceries, pay rent & utilities, buy diapers, baby formula or school supplies for their kid and (wait for it) - pay taxes.

With a bigger economy and tax base, surplus staff can be moved to where they're needed. If you chose a career in a field that's downsized - too bad. Time to find something new.

DEWEY said...

@ ckikerintulia:
You're not becoming jaded and sarcastic, you're becoming realistic.
Are the the prisoners in Brazil allowed to pedal and read at the same time?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Sounds like it could be a cool way to cool the inmates and staff."

That's actually a brilliant suggestion! Might even work!

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