- Prison systems worldwide not only violate human rights, they fail to deter crime.
- There are alternatives to traditional prisons that are cheaper, more humane and more successful in rehabilitating prisoners.
- The private sector has an important role to play in a changed approach to prisons and criminality.
Prison systems worldwide are not only an affront to human rights and human dignity; they fail even as an effective deterrent to crime because the overwhelming majority of inmates re-offend on release. But for the past 30 years an association in Brazil has taken a different approach, emphasising rehabilitation rather than punishment. Even Brazil’s Justice Minister has acknowledged the poor conditions reigning in Brazilian prisons and the importance of reintegration. ‘The Brazilian prison system has turned into a system for turning out more criminals. It kills the personality and just turns inmates into harder prisoners,’ said Luiz Carlos Resende, a member of the Brazilian Consejo Nacional de Justicia (CNJ).
APAC, the Associacao de Protecao e Assistencia aos Condenados (Association for Protection and Assistance of Convicts), has developed over the past three decades or so, centred in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, where it operates over 30 prisons. There are some further 40 APAC prisons under construction in other Brazilian states and in 23 other countries. Its prisons have no gaolers, no police and no weapons; the prisoners themselves and volunteers run them. There have been no riots or acts of violence and – despite the relaxed regime – few escapes. APAC prisons operate a clear routine, involving work, gymnastics, evangelisation and relaxation, including TV. The crime committed does not make a difference, nor the length of sentence. Providing a prisoner has served at least a year in a traditional jail, he or she can apply for a transfer to an APAC prison. The appeal of the new system is growing, not only because of its low re-incidence rates, but because running costs are around only one-third of those of a conventional jail.
But as Valdeci Antonio Ferreira, President, Fraternidade Brasileira de Assistência aos Condenados (FBAC) noted, the new approach still faces strong resistance. Some people think just locking criminals away is enough but that is a mistake. That person is going to come out worse, he said. But there are also strong vested interests that oppose change because the prison system is a big industry. ‘There are a lot of people living off the suffering of people,’ he said.
The private sector has an important role to play in this new approach to prison and crime. The Italy-based AVSI Foundation, an international not-for-profit, non-governmental organisation (NGO) has been active in Brazil for 25 years. It is currently working with Fiat, the Italian carmaker, on a corporate social responsibility project to employ young people from the favelas (shanty towns) in factories. AVSI is backing APAC, with financial support from the human rights budget of the European Union. ‘It may be strange to talk of freedom in the context of prisons, but that is what we are doing. We are investing in freedom,’ said Alberto Piatti, President, AVSI Foundation.
The APAC model can be exported to Europe and elsewhere. However, it needs support from all sectors, not just the government and the judiciary, but also the private sector and civil society organisations.