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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