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Unique Brazilian Prison Alternative Celebrates 40-Year Anniversary

Brazil has long been home to the largest prison population in the region. As of December 2011, the population stood at 514,582, with 37% of the incarcerated being pretrial detainees. In addition to its sheer size, the Brazilian penal system is infamous for nightmarish conditions, discriminatory incarceration, harrowing police violence and sky-high recidivism rates. Prisoners held in penitentiaries, jails and police station “lock-ups” are subject to painfully overcrowded conditions that exacerbate the system’s many defects. Legal assistance, health care and educational services are essentially absent, inviting further violence and dehumanization. The state violence against Brazil’s incarcerated cannot be overstated. Brazilian police are among the most brutal in the world, with an entrenched history of torture, extrajudicial killings and “death squad” missions.

Amid this madness, one of today’s most innovative, but under-discussed, alternative prison systems has taken root. The Association for the Protection and Assistance of the Convicted (APAC) is a faith-based penal model partially grounded in restorative justice theory. Founded in 1972 by a group of concerned evangelicals, APAC’s mission is the rehabilitation of the incarcerated and protection of greater Brazilian society – goals totally unaddressed by the traditional public prison system.

The methodology is based on the belief that education, family, humane treatment, community and faith are pillars of successful rehabilitation. Facilities operating under the groundbreaking APAC method are completely prisoner-run, with no police presence.
They are relatively small in size and offer strikingly improved living conditions devoid of overcrowding and violence. Health care, educational and vocational programming, nurseries and consistent contact visits are a part of the APAC landscape.

APAC’s philosophy places prisoners’ humanity before their status as incarcerated individuals, and rests on the belief that every human being is rehabilitatable. APAC prisoners are referred to not as “inmates,” “prisoners” or “criminals,” but as recuperandos, or those who are recovering. Recuperandos are to dress only in civilian clothes, are never handcuffed and are called by their first names – never by a number.
Inspirational quotes, such as “Here enters the man, his crime remains outside,” fill prison hallways. The belief that recuperandos are to be treated with respect – and given trust, responsibilities and a relative degree of freedom – pervades the daily functioning of APAC facilities.

Individuals convicted of any offense may be accepted into the program; the only requirements are a strong display of interest in the APAC method and record of good behavior. The local judge is responsible for overseeing the transfer of incarcerated persons in and out of APAC. The only mechanism of discipline in APAC prisons is a point system, wherein failure to complete tasks or mistreatment of fellow prisoners leads to a small range of punishments, from losing recreational time to meeting with APAC officials. Violence, drugs and cell phone use result in an immediate return to the public prison system. Although comprehensive statistics have yet to be collected, APAC prisons currently report recidivism and escape rates of under 10%. There are currently 108 APAC facilities across Brazil that apply the methodology to varying degrees, and each prison holds between 30 to 250 recuperandos. APAC-inspired facilities and programs exist in 23 countries, notably including the InnerChange Freedom Initiative program at the Carol S. Vance Unit in Texas.

A recuperando’s average schedule differs according to his or her current “regime,” be it closed, semi-open or open. Newcomers begin their sentences in the closed regime and move sequentially through each phase, which differ in the types and purpose of educational and therapeutic programs, and freedom of mobility. The closed regime is dedicated to work, as well as psychological and spiritual services expected to develop recuperandos’ confidence and self-determination. In the semi-open regime, recuperandos are given greater administrative responsibilities, and are to continue their vocational training. Recuperandos in the open regime are generally permitted to leave the facility for work, returning in the evening.

However, problems remain. Insufficient funds and an inconsistent volunteer base prevent the APAC method from being applied fully and equally across each facility where it has been adopted. There remains room for increased diversity and quality of psychological, educational and vocational services. Additionally, although APAC prisons offer a number of dramatic advances over public prisons – including humanization of the incarcerated and improvements to the prison environment, service allocation and resocialization rate – APAC methodology still fails to address a fundamental problem of the prison system. Race and class as principal factors in incarceration are completely absent from APAC’s approach. Although this particular dimension does not originate in APAC prisons, it continues to be institutionalized within these facilities, which remains a fundamental disadvantage.

Despite this critical shortcoming, APAC has won near-unanimous high praise. In 2008, Brazil’s Carceral System Chamber of Deputies rated APAC Nova Lima the best prison in the country. The majority of news coverage and other written reports on this alternative prison model focus almost exclusively on improvements over public prisons, and present APAC as the solution to the ills of the Brazilian penal system – though with no acknowledgement of APAC’s blind spot on race- and class-based discrimination.

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the APAC methodology and the 7th national APAC convention, where more than 300 individuals convened in the city of Itaúna to discuss the method’s present and future. As APAC continues to spread across Brazil, knowledge of the methodology remains virtually absent in the U.S. Given the United States’ position as the world’s leading proponent of mass incarceration, the U.S. prison reform movement stands to greatly benefit from increased engagement with APAC’s successes, and can learn from both its advantages and disadvantages.

Lyla Bugara is a campaign associate with and author of “The Humane Prison: Reconciling APAC and the Brazilian Prison system,” one of the few comprehensive English language reports on the APAC prison system.

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