In Brazil, get out of jail sooner by hitting the books

Brazil has proposed legislation to shorten prison sentences in exchange for taking classes. It could alleviate overcrowding in an overtaxed prison system.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP
Inmates walk around a yard at the Carandiru detention center in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Oct. 11, 2000. Built for 3,200 inmates, the prison, which is perhaps best known for the massacre of 111 inmates by riot police during a 1992 rebellion, now houses 7,300 inmates and still smolders with violence and unrest.

Brazilian legislators have passed an innovative law to deal with overcrowding and high recidivism in Brazil’s prisons: one day less in prison for every 12 hours spent in the classroom, reports Folha de São Paulo. As world population continues to surge past 7 billion people, prison overcrowding and repeat incarceration have become major policy problems around the world.

Statistics from a 2010 report show that there are 440,864 prisoners in Brazil’s prison system and a total of 299,597 spots, meaning that prisons are 140,000 prisoners over capacity. The law already provides for one day less in prison for every three days of performed labor, but the new measures, introduced by legislator Cristovam Buarque (PDT-DF), will accelerate the pace at which prisoners may shorten their sentences.

Almost a quarter of prisoners (97,050) are involved in programs where labor is performed in exchange for time, but only about 10 percent (44,463 prisoners) enroll in educational programs. Even though less than one percent of prisoners have completed high school (1,860 prisoners), literacy rates are surprisingly high: a mere 6 percent of inmates are illiterate, almost half the national average for all Brazilian citizens. The recently passed law, soon to be signed by President Dilma Rousseff, may provide the needed stimulus to encourage Brazil’s 411,157 incarcerated men and 29,707 women to sign up for educational initiatives, which will apparently be available both in-house and by distance.

Incarceration rates in Brazil are still relatively low compared to other systems. US prisons contain more than five times the number of incarcerated men than Brazil’s – between 2.3 and 2.4 million, according to 2010 figures published by the Economist. These numbers are jarring, especially given that the total national population of the US is less than twice that of Brazil. For an inside look at the US prison system, see Prison Movement’s Weblog.

--- Greg Michener, based in Rio de Janeiro, writes the blog, Observing Brazil. He is currently writing a book on Freedom of Information in Latin America for Cambridge University Press.

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