July 11, 2012

Brazilian prisoners riding toward freedom

Photos: Felipe Dana, AP
Brazilian prisons, criticized by human rights groups for their miserable conditions, are getting some good press this week over an innovative rehabilitation program that allows prisoners to pedal their way to freedom.

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.

It's one of a series of new projects being implemented across Brazil to enable prisoners to improve their lives and health while working their way toward freedom, according to a story by Associated Press reporter Jenny Barchfield. With an estimated half a million people behind bars, the nation is also hoping to ease rampant prison overcrowding.

With one in 10 Brazilians over the age of 15 unable to read, literacy is a major focus of these rehabilitation efforts. 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.

Let's hope that other countries struggling with overcrowded and dismal prisons will follow Brazil's lead and implement similar rehabilitation efforts that provide a sense of hope and some chance for prisoners to turn their lives around.

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