June 27, 2012

Brazilian prisoners reduce sentences by reading


In Brazil, prisoners are being given a pressing incentive to read: time knocked off their sentences.

Reuters reports that four federal prisons, which hold some of the country’s most notorious criminals, have implemented a scheme enabling eligible prisoners to shave up to 48 days off their sentence per year. That’s four days off per book, at a maximum rate of one book a month. As well as reading the books, which must be selected from the categories of literature, philosophy, science, or classics, they must write an essay on each one. A special panel has been set up to decide which inmates will be eligible to participate.

The New York Daily News blog points out that this isn’t the first time literature has been incentivised for prisoners: in the middle of May a judge in the Bay Area ruled that a 23-year-old man arrested for attempting to sell a grenade launcher to an undercover federal agent be released while he awaits trial, provided that he read at least one hour of every day, and write reports on those books at least half an hour of every day. The prosecution pointed to his substance abuse problems and criminal past as reasons to keep him under lock and key, but lost the battle.

The specifics of that case aside, the snarky ending of the NY Daily News post seems a little misplaced:

These progressive trends certainly mean well, but one can only wonder what positive results, if any, will come of these incentivized initiatives for inmates. Will there be a reinforcement of their learning after they write their book reports, say, perhaps a cell-wide book discussion group? An end-of-term project?

It seems clear that the essay is less a book report than a way of verifying that the books have really been read and thoroughly processed, and of improving writing skills where necessary. It’s also crystal clear from re-offending stats that prisons, by and large, have extremely patchy success rates in rehabilitating offenders. To attempt to improve those rates by incentivising an activity that improves literacy, encourages deep reflection, has been proven to stimulate empathy, gives access to a rich internal world, and provides a lifelong pastime, seems nothing other than thoroughly commendable.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.