For Brazilian prisoners, turning pages will shorten sentences

An inmate performs in a play at a public theatre in Lima, Peru. The theatre program is one of many prison activities popping up around the globe to help reduce overcrowding and rehabilitate prisoners. (Photo from REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil)

Homer, Steinbeck and Dickens. Every high schooler has to read them, and now, their works might be a way for Brazilian prisoners to get their hands on a “get out of jail early” card.

According to a article, the Brazilian government announced earlier this week that a new program called “Redemption through Reading” will give prisoners in four of the country’s federal prisons the option to shorten their sentences by up to 48 days a year.

The eligible inmates, who have to be approved by a special panel, will earn 4 days off their sentences for each book they read. The prisoners will have four weeks to finish each book – which has to be a work of literature, philosophy, science or classics – and can read up to 12 per year to count toward the program.

In traditional high-school fashion, the prisoners will have to wrap up each book with an essay discussing what they read.

With the fourth-largest prison population in the world, this program is the latest of Brazil’s attempts to address its problem with prison overcrowding – something that countries across the globe have spent recent years trying to combat as well. Here is a glimpse of what some other nations have done to decrease prison populations:

  • Earlier this year, officials in Geneva, Switzerland decided to pay foreign-born, non-violent criminals 2,700 euros to leave and never return to the country.
  • The Dutch government announced in 2009 that it planned to close eight prisons, due to its plummetting crime rates that are said to be tied to the country’s relatively lenient drug laws.
  • In Norway, the longest prison sentence is 21 years, and the fence-free prisons focus mostly on rehabilitation.
  • In 2010, Russian leaders passed a law to replace some prison time for minor offenders with house arrest.
(Photo by Alex Stonehill)

The U.S. is pursuing its own strategies to reduce prison populations. States like California have adopted new policies that reward early releases to prisoners who get their high school diplomas or complete rehabilitation programs. At the end of last year, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 2010 was the first year in four decades that saw a decrease in the total prison population, dropping 0.6% to 1.6 million.

For those being held in one of the Washington state prison system’s 12 prison facilities, the average sentence is 23.8 months. If the Washington State Department of Corrections adopted a program similar to Brazil’s, the average prisoner might be able to get out 95 days, or a little more than three months, early. But a decision like this would have to come from higher up than those who run the prisons, said Chad Lewis, the Director of Communications for the Washington State Department of Corrections.

According to Lewis, it would take a change in the state’s laws to introduce a program like Brazil’s. He said he doesn’t expect this to happen any time soon, since Washington’s prisons already have measures in place to shorten prison time. He said that some first-time, nonviolent offenders can get their sentences shortened by up to a third if they maintain a clean record by avoiding conflict, staying away from contraband materials and respecting prison officials.

But overall, Lewis said most Washington prisoners – at least the ones who aren’t in maximum security custody – don’t spend their days idly holding onto the bars of their prison cells like we see in the movies. They are busy doing things like fighting wildfires, building furniture, and taking care of the day-to-day maintenance of the prisons – which he said would keep a program like Brazil’s from being very successful here.

“Most inmates have little time to read. Most of them are very active,” he said.

Sounds a lot like summer camp! I guess that wouldn’t leave much time for read-a-thons.


Allison Int-Hout is a contributor to the Seattle Globalist and a recent grad from the UW journalism program. She is (mostly) fluent in Spanish and looks forward to adding more pins to the world map on her wall.