The Carioca Way

Brazilian Inmates May Pedal
or Read to Reduce Time Inside

Ah, Brazil, land of unbound creativity, endless optimism, and an unorthodox approach to imprisonment and jailbird sentencing. Whereas the U.S. has the world’s largest prison population, and in China those who can, pay others to do time for them, Brazilian authorities came to a different understanding about the issue.
Call it a bossa nova way to provide rehabilitation for those who haven’t committed serious crimes, but still need to pay their dues. Two of these innovative strategies for reducing sentence time are to pedal stationary bikes, and read books, adopted by a few of the country’s correctional facilities. Don’t they sound fun?
Just don’t raise your criminal intent too high just yet, thinking that they do things differently in the tropics. Prison time is still a brutal experience wherever you go, to be sure. And, like here, we know of very few instances that a wealthy person gets to be sent there, regardless of their crime.
So, in some ways, it’s all business as usual. But no one can be too cynical to deny the value of trying these and other alternatives, even if neither of them is completely original, to add some quality to inmate time. And, of course, such initiatives have fierce opponents, calling them a waste of taxpayer money.
Time will tell. There’s no study we know of showing possible benefits of having career criminals becoming body builders, or studying books about the 10 Habits of Highly Successful Ex-Cons, or How to Avoid Jail Time and Elect the President, for example. But we shouldn’t jump into any rushed conclusions (or over high barbed-wire fences) just yet.

In Arizona, the Tent City Jail requires its female prisoners to pedal a stationary bicycle if they care to watch the evening news. Or rather, Desperate Wives and Jersey Shore, favorites of the prison’s lounge. The more the inmates pedal, the longer the TV can be on, within the preset rules and regulations, of course.
That’s essentially what’s being done at the medium-security penitentiary of Santa Rita do Sapucai for the past few months. Except that in there, the energy produced by the bikers is used to charge up batteries used to power the city’s street lights. And by volunteering to do the work, inmates can shave time off their sentences.
Not much, to be clear; they need to bike 16 hours to subtract a day off their prison term. But it still works counterwise to what’s usually expected to happen to inmates: life inside can actually increase their risk of getting into trouble, and add even more time to their original sentence.
Then again, critics of such programs charge that it’s an open incentive to slackers, who don’t deserve having any penalty reductions, for as long as victims of their crimes were still being ‘penalized’ by their misdeeds. The logic makes sense, but there’s got to be a moment when the punishment ends, the individual is declared even with society, and it’s time to move on.

Widespread illiteracy is one of the most persistent obstacles preventing Brazil from fulfilling its dreams of becoming a world power. At par with poverty and glaring social inequalities, the country’s workforce suffers from an acute lack of highly trained professionals, able to compete globally and drive economic growth.
So an initiative to provide 12 works of classical literature for inmates to read and write essays about them, as a means for them to reduce their terms in prison seems slightly out of place. Due to poor educational level found in prison populations, the program may not produce many takers and its eventual failure may even add to the psychological burden of being an inmate.
Undaunted by the challenges, officials decided to go ahead with the experimental ‘Redemption Through Reading‘ program in four major federal penitentiaries throughout Brazil. Works of literature, philosophy, science or classics will be distributed to prisoners, who’ll have four weeks to read each book and write an essay about it.
If they manage to ‘make correct use of paragraphs, be free of corrections, use margins and legible joined-up writing” according to a notice published in an official gazette, they’ll be able to trim up to 48 days every year of their sentence. It’ll all be decided by a special panel, including which inmates are eligible to participate.
We’ll abstain from expressing our hopelessly biased doubts about the whole plan here. But we wonder how well can Nietszche or Proust, Kierkegaard or even Shakespeare teach these hard knockers. After all, how well did they teach us all, anyway? But that’s because we happened to have read them, and would you just take a look at what it all turned us into?
But neither one can’t blame these officials for being downright optimist about the prospects of inmates leaving jail with a more enlightened view of the world. Nor you can argue that, as a world apart, prisons can be like laboratories, and do offer opportunities to experiment with different approaches for rehabilitation. Again, time will tell, and we’re probably wrong.
Now, for issues such as overcrowding, rampant rape and sexual violence, judicial support, discrimination between hard criminals and lesser offenders, and conditions related to quality of life, there’s really not much being done. Neither there, and nor in the U.S., where jail management is now a for-profit business. And about China, well, we’ll come back to that some other day.

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