Inmates in Brazilian jail cycle to freedom

Last Updated: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 - 10:58

Santa Rita Do Sapucai: Brazilian inmate Ronaldo da Silva hops on a bicycle and pedals furiously, clocking up several kilometres before slowing down and jumping off.

Silva hasn`t gotten far, in fact not an inch. He`s still inside the medium-security prison where he`s serving a 5.5-year sentence for holding up a bakery, standing next to a stationary bike.

But he did move a bit closer to freedom. Silva is part of an innovative program that allows inmates at a prison in Brazil`s southeastern Minas Gerais state to reduce their sentences in exchange for generating power to help illuminate the town at night.

By pedalling the prison`s stationary bikes, the inmates charge a battery that`s used to power 10 street lamps along the town`s riverside promenade. For every three eight-hour days they spend on the bikes, Silva and the voluntary program`s other participants get one day shaved off their sentences.

It is one of several new projects being implemented across Brazil, including literacy and book-reading programs, all aimed at thinning out notoriously overcrowded prisons and cutting down on recidivism by helping restore inmates` sense of self-worth. Lambasted by critics as too soft on criminals, such initiatives are seen by their defenders as effective ways of breaking the cycle of violence that reigns in the country`s penitentiaries.

"We used to spend all day locked up in our cells, only seeing the sun for two hours a day," said 38-year-old Silva, whose missing front teeth speak to a life of hardships and privation. "Now we`re out in the fresh air, generating electricity for the town and at the same time we`re winning our freedom."

Silva has already pedalled off 4 kilograms and 20 days from his sentence.

Clad in red, prison-issue sweat pants and matching T-shirts, he and his fellow cyclists hit the bikes at around nine in the morning and ride until about 5 PM, with breaks for lunch and an afternoon snack.

The resistance is strong, and the inmates soon work up a sweat, though the crisp mountain air of Santa Rita do Sapucai a city of about 35,000 nestled in a mountain range about two hours northwest of Sao Paulo keeps them cooler than they`d be in most other parts of tropical Brazil.
With just four bikes, so far, the project`s eight participants take turns relieving one another.

The two month-old program is the brainchild of the town`s judge, Jose Henrique Mallmann, who said he got the idea from a story he read on the Internet about gyms in the United States where electricity is generated by the exercise bikes.


First Published: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 - 10:58
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