Bicycling to Freedom in Brazil

A couple weeks ago, I commented on a Brazilian prison program designed to reward prisoners with shorter sentences if they read books and wrote book reports. At the time, I expressed some slight reservations regarding the worry that the program would privilege those prisoners with better educational backgrounds. However, that concern doesn’t seem to apply to another innovative program to allow prisoners to shorten their sentences: they can ride stationary bicycles to generate power for a nearby town.

By pedaling, the inmates charge a battery that powers 10 street lamps along a riverside promenade. For every three eight-hour days they spend on the bikes, Silva and the program’s other volunteers get one day shaved off their sentences.

The project in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais is one of several across Brazil meant to cut recidivism by helping restore an inmate’s sense of self-worth. Prisoners elsewhere can trim their sentences by reading sentences — in books — or taking classes.

This is tricky. On one hand, it does seem exploitative; on the other hand, there is nothing coercing prisoners into participating in this program, and it is a novel way to provide renewable energy. And the prisoners don’t seem to mind. As one said:

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

Ultimately, if the prisoners find something rewarding in the experience, I think it’s a good idea. And as I said regarding the “reading for freedom” program, if it helps reduce the number of prisoners in Brazil’s grossly-overcrowded prison system even while rehabilitating those in jail, then ultimately I think it’s a good thing.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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