In Brazil, Some Inmates Are Using A Novel Way To Get Out Of Prison Earlier

Jul 4, 2017
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Brazil has some of the world's most troubled prisons. They're severely overcrowded, there's disease. This year alone, more than 130 inmates have been killed in gang-related warfare. And prisoners regularly attempt to tunnel to freedom. NPR's Philip Reeves says there's another way out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: About 30 men are sitting behind desks in a classroom. They're writing with pens and paper. The teacher is standing up front issuing instructions.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: We could be in any school anywhere but for a couple of details. One, a wall of iron bars separates the teacher from her class. Two, the paper each man's writing could win him a little bit of his life back.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: These are inmates in a giant penitentiary in southern Brazil called the Casa de Custodia de Piraquara. They're wearing soft orange pajamas and flip-flops. That's the uniform around here. Some 7,000 prisoners are detained in this prison complex for convictions including rape, robbery and murder.

MARILDA DE PAULA SOARES: (Through interpreter) I am an educator. I really believe people can change.

REEVES: Marilda de Paula Soares is the class teacher. Her students are participating in a project pioneered by the southern Brazilian state of Parana. Prisoners get four days lopped off their sentences for each book they read. To get those days of freedom, they must write a short paper about the book. They're doing that now. Soares says each prisoner's paper must explain...

SOARES: (Through interpreter) What's caught their eye, a specific character, the language, the theme?

REEVES: In sufficient detail to ensure that cheating is...

SOARES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Impossible. Douglas Seixas, an inmate here, says it's true. You really can't skip the reading.

DOUGLAS SEIXAS: No, no.

REEVES: Not possible.

SEIXAS: Not possible.

REEVES: Why?

SEIXAS: Because we need to read a book to understand. If you not read the book, no, no way.

REEVES: Only certain books qualify under the reading program, including foreign and Brazilian classics and kids' books for prisoners learning to read. Books with very violent themes are banned. Prisoners can't binge read their way over the razor wire and concrete walls. There's a maximum of 12 books a year. That adds up to a month and a half remission. Admilson Rodrigues is doing 10 years for drug trafficking but is steadily whittling down his sentence by reading.

ADMILSON RODRIGUES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Rodrigues said he loved "Gone With The Wind" and also "Les Miserables." "Les Miserables" seems particularly popular here. Rodrigues believes that's because it's about an ex-con who's trying to create a new life on the outside.

RODRIGUES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He can identify with that, he explains. Within this prison, opinions about the project appear divided. Illiterate prisoners must use the various other ways of earning remission. Valdeir de Souza says some of his fellow inmates do not like the project because...

VALDEIR DE SOUZA: (Through interpreter) They're not going to want to read books. They want to teach people how to rob and kill. So these people are against it.

REEVES: Is this project window dressing by Brazilian officials? Are they trying to put a gloss on a dysfunctional penal system where inmates sometimes wait years before being tried? It's hard to know. Yet, prisoners here do seem to be benefiting. Edson Reinehr says he's on his fourth book, which is about the adventures of Mowgli the wolf boy.

EDSON REINEHR: Helps a lot because to keep the mind - occupied mind inside the cell instead of thinking about other bad things.

REEVES: Staff here say the project's about much more than just helping prisoners pass the time and get a little remission. Teacher Agda Ultchak says it's about fundamentally changing lives.

AGDA ULTCHAK: (Through interpreter) We hope to create a new perspective on life for them. This is about acquiring knowledge and culture and being able to join another universe.

REEVES: It's hard to argue with that. Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.