Brazil experiments with giving prisoners their keys

World Today

Brazil’s prisons are notorious for overcrowding and violence. Now, one facility is trying a new and rather novel approach.

Officials are giving the keys to the prisoners.

CGTN’s Paulo Cabral explains.

Over the last couple of years, Elton dos Santos has been learning honest job skills for the first time in his life. And he’s done it while a prisoner in a Brazilian penitentiary, convicted for drug dealing. He hopes to keep up the good work as a baker when he leaves jail in about three years.

“Everything I learned was here inside this prison. When I got here I did not have a profession and now I do. So thank God for that,” an inmate said.

According to Brazilian law, all inmates have the right to work and authorities are required to supply opportunities.

But in practice, Brazil’s penitentiaries provide work for only about one in five prisoners. And in a notoriously overcrowded and violent system, that’s not by any measure their biggest problem.

One exception is found in this prison, run by the Christian NGO APAC. The Association for the Protection and Assistance to Convicts, in partnership with the state. Here, there’s paid work or “labor therapy” for all inmates, decent food and lodging, virtually no violence and no armed guards at all. The prison is mostly managed by the inmates themselves.

Not surprisingly, there’s competition to get in. Inmates from regular penitentiaries have to be cleared by a judge to apply for transfer to one of 51 APAC facilities. Then they go through an interview process with prison managers to see if they seem to be a good fit.

The warden here is a former inmate himself, with a number of convictions for bank robbery and time served in different jails the last, this one.

“On average in Brazil about 90% of the inmates commit other crimes when they are set free. In prison managed by APAC that average is about 20%. And the cost per inmate here is about one-third the average cost in regular state-run prison,” Ailton Oliveira Silva, Prison Warden at APAC Pouso Alegre said.

Jose Freire was sentenced to 17 years for murder in a crime of passion much publicized by Brazilian media in 2015. He had no prior criminal history.

“I served two and half years of my sentence in a common prison because it’s not easy to get a place in one of these APAC penitentiaries. There are many requirements to fulfill. And the first difference I noticed coming here was being called by my name instead of a number. It’s comforting to know that I can now serve my time with more dignity,” inmate Jose Freire said.

There are almost four-thousand inmates in the 51 APAC facilities a tiny fraction, about half of one percent, of Brazil’s 720 thousand total prisoners. But the program serves as an example that solutions to Brazil’s prison problems may be found though an openness to out-of-the-box thinking.