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.

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.

It's an incredibly controversial program, since those opposed not only disagree with the state supporting criminals' families, but also the fact that the monthly amount is more than the minimum wage, which stands at R$622 ($305 USD) nationally. Because of the growing prison population, the government's expenditures on this program increased by 60 percent from 2006 to 2009. Those opposed to the program also argue it rewards and even incentivizes crime. Last year, a congressman introduced a bill to prohibit the auxílio-reclusão to families of criminals convicted of rape, murder, and drug trafficking.

Next, there's the right to intimate visits, which are guaranteed to all prisoners, regardless of crime or sentence, by law. (There's an interesting National Geographic special on this topic, which you can watch here and here.) The law also accounts for gay couples. The idea is that these visits help prisoners' mental health and can potentially reduce recidivism. There are also work programs, which enable prisoners to reduce sentences through employment. There are even entrepreneurship programs that encourage prisoners to start their own businesses while still in prison.

But over the coming months, a new penal code could have an impact on Brazil's prison system. Currently under development in the Senate, the code is one of the most important pieces of legislation that will be under consideration during Dilma [Rousseff]'s presidency. Along with altering punishment and sentences for an array of crimes, the new code could increase the maximum sentence. Currently, the maximum sentence a prisoner can serve is 30 years, regardless of the crime committed. Under the new code, this could increase to 40 years. Another big change is the proposal to reduce the age of criminal responsibility. Currently, it's 18 years of age in Brazil, but the new code could reduce the age to 13. A separate bill is under consideration in the Senate to reduce the age to 16, and could be voted on this year. While legislators hope the new penal code could discourage crime, it will undoubtedly have an impact on the size of the prisoner population, making prison policy even more critical over the next few years.

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog Riogringa.com.

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