Many books and films show the problems that exist within the prison system in developing countries, portraying the subhuman environment, fraught with social tension, escapes, rebellions and violence. In Brazil the situation is no different; national prisons are seen as “universities of crime”, because the environment encourages inmates to become more dangerous and violent instead of reeducating them for life in society.
In the 1970s and 80s, a Catholic group established the Association for Protection and Assistance in Prison (APAC) in the municipality of São José dos Campos. This was the first local community participation initiative that focused on management issues in a prison unit. Based on this experience, the community of Bragança Paulista created a local branch of the APAC to support and oversee prison activities. The initiative’s success brought support from the São Paulo state government leading to a partnership with the State Department of Public Security. APAC took on responsibility for administrating prison meals and using leftover funds for improvements.
At the time, the State allocated 10.00 Brazilian real per inmate each day for meals; with APAC management the food improved and the cost dropped to 2.50 real per day. This allowed the APAC to hire a lawyer, doctor, psychologist and social worker with the remaining funds. In the following year, these resources allowed the APAC to begin construction of an annex for 120 prisoners. In December 1999, the State Department for Prison Administration made the Bragança Paulista initiative a pilot program for the state. In 2005, the experience is carried out at 24 units with an additional eight awaiting approval to participate.
The APACs are non profit organizations which work together with the Judiciary, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Civil and Military Police, City Hall, businesses, religious groups, education authorities and volunteers to carry out activities such as education, health, professional training, reintegration and family assistance. The APACs are directly responsible for buying supplies and hiring staff, which guarantees flexibility and agility. Part of the funding also goes towards water, light, telephone and gas services and towards basic maintenance.
To take part in the program, prisoners must have family or social ties within the municipality. Regardless of the type of crime they committed initially, they must be considered at low risk of recidivism. Those without family ties may be accepted if they show good behavior or if they committed misdemeanors. APAC seeks out partnerships with local businesses, which set up a small production unit or workshop within the prison unit. Wages are paid once monthly production or goals reached. 10% is deducted from the prisoners’ monthly wages for those doing cleaning or maintenance work in the unit. Monthly earnings are kept in individual accounts to be passed on to families or kept for prisoner release.
The units offer adult literacy classes to prepare the inmates for primary schooling. Some also offer secondary schooling through the distance learning system. All units have libraries, run by the prisoners, with books, encyclopedias and magazines. All new units offer internal sports facilities. Optional non-denominational religious gatherings take place every night. Each unit offers emergency medical care and has a dental and medical office.
The physical space is superior to other prisons: cells are built to house 12 inmates with brick beds and individual lockers. Bathrooms are shared, with hot and cold showers and doors to ensure privacy. There are special cells for sick or disabled inmates. Relatives and friends can visit twice each week and conjugal visits take place on weekends.
The units have a non-tolerance policy for violent behavior; any violence, whether among inmates or between inmates and staff, is investigated and those involved are punished or even transferred, which means a return to the traditional prison system. APAC team presence in the prison also helps guarantee staff adherence to the new system. The APAC has found that many prison employees require a period of time to adapt to the new system. There are fewer employees; the prisoners themselves operate internal doors and are responsible for most maintenance operations, with services rendered counting as work hours.
Evaluation of recidivism shows minimum rate of 2% and a maximum of 8%. This rate is much lower than the traditional prison system, which is 59%. Within the program there have been no rebellions or violent uprisings and yet there is no armed guard in the external area where security levels are low. Despite this, in 2003 there were less than 50 escapes from a prison population of 3,032, a small number compared to the Brazilian prison system as a whole.
• By handing over some of the responsibility for everyday operation of the prison unit to the prisoners, the APAC program helps them regain respect and self-esteem.
• The opportunity to earn a wage and continuing schooling while completing their sentences helps reeducate and prepare the prisoners for release.
• Keeping low-risk prisoners within a community context, where they can have contact with their families and friends, strengthens links that are vital for post-prison life and for avoiding recidivism.