Though Brazil’s incarceration rate is just two-thirds that in the U.S., the South American country’s prisons offer plenty of misery to those incarcerated there. Which makes the boast of a Christian nonprofit running a few dozen Brazilian lockups all the more remarkable: Their prisoners don’t want to run away, they claim, so there is no need for armed guards – in fact prisoners have keys to their own cells.
According to a report by al-Jazeera on May 16, 2023, the facilities are managed by the Association for Protection and Assistance of Convicts (APAC), a Brazilian non-profit advocating for better treatment of prisoners. There prisoners are called “recovering persons” and referred to by their names, rather than a number. They have clean cells, fresh food and educational opportunities, along with keys to their own cells and responsibility for overseeing security and discipline.
A 2021 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that most Brazilian prisoners were “often held in overcrowded and structurally deficient prisons, maltreated, and frequently subjected to torture.” But new prisoners entering APAC’s Sao Joao del-Rei prison are greeted by a sign that reads, “Here the man enters, the crime stays outside” – an aspirational message setting the tone for what APAC officials want to be a transformative experience. Prisoners adhere to a structured routine with chores, activities, and studies throughout a long day that begins at 6:00 a.m. and doesn’t end until 10:00 p.m.
Brazil’s prison system houses over 800,000 prisoners in traditional penitentiaries where conditions are dangerous and dreary. To appreciate the difference, APAC accepts only prisoners who’ve done time in a regular prison. They can be returned there, too, if they fail to live up to APAC requirements. This probably makes APAC’s sample of the country’s prisoners self-selected for better behavior. But Antonio Fuzatto, president of APAC’s 400-bed prison in Sao Joao del-Rei, called the requirements an incentive for compliance.
Israel Domingos, a 34-year-old convicted of drug trafficking, originally envisioned escape from the APAC where he is held. But now he said his dream is to return after completing his sentence to work as a social worker. His story is not an isolated case; APAC reports a significantly lower five-year recidivism rate compared to the national average, 14% vs. 39%.
Despite its recognized success, further expansion of APAC has snagged on limited resources and concerns that local officials are corrupt. However, the methodology has garnered interest internationally, with countries like Germany and South Korea exploring it.
One critic of the APAC approach is Fernanda Prates, a law professor at Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation, who worries that it ends up legitimizing a bloated and broken carceral system. She advocates for alternatives to incarceration, emphasizing the importance of social conditions and structural changes to address crime.
Another feature of the APAC system that would be controversial outside a heavily Catholic country like Brazil: The Christian beliefs in which the program is rooted, placing emphasis on individual moral responsibility and daily exercises in spirituality. Group prayer rituals and hymn-singing play a significant role in shaping the rehabilitation “journey.”
APAC says the effectiveness of its model lies in providing prisoners tools to rebuild their lives. Many, like Dilermando do Carmo Camara, who struggled with depression before entering the prison, credit APAC with the positive changes they have experienced during their time there. Another, Leonardo Henrique, said the dignity with which he has been treated at the APAC prison led him to renounce crime. He says his dream “is to work as a judicial assistant with a judge that doesn’t believe in recovery, to show him that yes, it does work.”
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