By Jo Griffin for BBC
On the first day in her new cell, Tatiane Correia de Lima did not recognise herself.
"It was weird to see myself in a mirror again," says the 26-year-old mother-of-two who is serving a 12-year sentence in Brazil. "At first I didn't know who I was."
The South American country has the world's fourth largest prison population and its jails regularly come under the spotlight for their poor conditions, with chronic overcrowding and gang violence provoking deadly riots.
Lima had just been moved from a prison in the mainstream penitential system to a facility run by the Association for the Protection and Assistance to Convicts (Apac) in the town of Itaúna, in Minas Gerais state.
Unlike in the mainstream system, "which steals your femininity" as Lima puts it, at the Apac jail she is allowed to wear her own clothes and have a mirror, make-up and hair dye.
But the difference between the regimes is far more than skin-deep.
The Apac system has been gaining growing recognition as a safer, cheaper and more humane answer to the country's prison crisis.
On 20 March a new Apac jail opened in Rondônia, the first in the country's north, taking the number facilities run by the association countrywide to 49.
All Apac prisoners must have passed through the mainstream system and must show remorse and be willing to follow the strict regime of work and study which is part of the system's philosophy.
There are no guards or weapons and visitors are greeted by an inmate who unlocks the main door to the small women's jail.
The inmate leads the way to the "conjugal suite", a brightly decorated room with a double bed where women are allowed to spend private time with partners visiting from outside the jail.
She then shows visitors to a room where women are labelling bottles of soap that will be sold outside.
Apac prisons were set up by a group of Catholics in 1972 and are now co-ordinated and supported by the Italian non-governmental organisation AVSI Foundation and the Brazilian Fraternity of Assistance to Convicts.
AVSI Brazil's vice-president, Jacopo Sabatiello, says love and work are the priorities in these penitentiaries. "Here, we call everyone by their name, not by a number and not by nicknames, which they might have acquired during a life of crime," he says.
By Jo Griffin for The Guardian
Renato Da Silva Junior harbours ambitions of becoming a lawyer. There is just one obstacle: he is a quarter of the way through serving a 20-year jail sentence for murder.
“My dreams are bigger than my mistakes,” says Da Silva, a slightly built man with a broad smile. “I am doing everything to get out of here as soon as I can.”
Da Silva, 28, an inmate at the men’s prison in Itaúna, a town in Minas Gerais, south-east Brazil, is chipping away at his sentence and has already reduced it by two years through work and study at the Association for Protection and Assistance to Convicts (Apac) prison. Here, inmates wear their own clothes, prepare their own food and are even in charge of security. At an Apac jail, there are no guards or weapons, and inmates literally hold the keys.
A visit to the Apac men’s and women’s prisons in Itaúna subverts all expectations about the penal system in Brazil, where overcrowding, squalor and gang rivalry regularly cause deadly riots. These widely reported outbreaks are one reason Brazil’s penitentiaries are often regarded as a ticking timebomb where inmates languish in inhumane conditions with little chance of rehabilitation. Brazil has the world’s fourth largest prison population.
In Itaúna, the main door of the men’s jail is opened by David Rodrigues de Oliveira, a recuperando or “recovering person”, as inmates are known in the Apac system. This word is displayed alongside his name on a lanyard that also states his category of regime: closed, semi-open or open. In contrast with mainstream prisons, Apac inmates are addressed by name rather than number.
Another reason inmates uphold the strict routine of work and study required by Apac – under which no one is permitted to stay in their cells unless they are sick or being punished – is that an escape attempt would return them to the mainstream system, which all inmates have experienced before.
No detail of the contrasting regimes escapes the inmates. “Here we eat with metal knives and forks, while there we are given plastic, as if we are not human beings,” says recuperando Luiz Fernando Estevez Da Silva. “It’s not only the criminal who goes to jail, it’s his family. There, relatives who visit are strip-searched.”
Twenty or more people crammed in a cell, filthy mattresses and inedible food are common complaints in mainstream prisons. Apac prisons, coordinated and supported by the Italian AVSI Foundation and the Brazilian Fraternity of Assistance to Convicts (FBA), impose a limit of 200 inmates to prevent overcrowding. New arrivals come with shoulders bowed and hands behind their backs, says Da Silva, and they first have to learn not to stare at the floor.
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