Brazil's solution to prison overcrowding: time off for reading books
Brazil's prison population is 66 percent larger than the system has room for, writes a guest blogger. In an effort to curb overcrowding, new policies offer reduced sentences for things like reading.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.Skip to next paragraph
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While the international media had a heyday with strange news tidbits from Brazil's prisons, few have explored the complexities of the country's incarceration system. There are a number of policies and programs in place to try to protect prisoners' rights and reduce the inmate population, though a new penal code could have important implications for the overburdened prison system.
Estimated at around 500,000, Brazil's prisoner population is the fourth-largest in the world. The inmate population tripled in the last 15 years. Many prisons are overcrowded, with an estimated deficit of 200,000 spots for prisoners. At present, the country's prison population is 66 percent larger than the actual system has room for. Terrible conditions and human rights abuses are frequently cited as consequences of overcrowding. (Corruption of prison guards is also a problem, allowing drug traffickers to continue operating with impunity, sometimes from thousands of kilometers away.)
So in order to contain the prisoner population, many new policies are focused on reducing the number of prisoners and shortening sentences. But it's important to note that while some of prisoner programs and policies might be considered innovative by some, in Brazil – where crime affects the daily life of much of the population – much of public opinion tends to be against prisoners' rights.
The big news over the past two weeks comes out of a prison in a small town in Minas Gerais, where jailmates ride stationary bikes to create electricity and earn reduced sentences. The idea is for the inmates – who range from petty thieves to murderers – to be productive, make the town safer by providing electricity for public lighting, and theoretically, to reduce recidivism and the overcrowded prison population.
Another story that came out recently is about a program that offers reduced sentences to inmates who read books, and prove they've read them by writing reports. Called Redemption through Reading, the program will be launched at four high-security prisons with some of the country's most hardened criminals. Federal prisons are also offering education programs to reduce sentences by going back to school.
There are already policies in place that seek to protect prisoners' rights and try to reduce recidivism. Perhaps one of the most controversial policies is that of the "prisoner's grant." Called the auxílio-reclusão, dependents of prisoners serving time receive up to R$915 ($449 USD) per family per month. In order to qualify for the benefit, the prisoner must be a contributor to the social security system, and cannot be working or earn a salary from a former job. He cannot receive money from a pension or sick leave, either. Also, the inmate must have earned equal or less than $449 at his most recent job. In other words, the program targets low-income families of prisoners.