Brazil’s prison population of 700,000 is one of the highest in the world. The occupancy rate has been estimated at 165%, with some cells so full that prisoners can’t lie down. Brutality, endemic violence and riots are common. The prisoners that leave the penal system are even more hardened criminals than when they entered the penitentiaries. And no one wants to hire them. With no means or prospects, they relapse into crime. The result is a recidivism rate of around 70%.

An organization in Brazil has decided to change all that, putting into place an alternative incarceration and rehabilitation model. It treats inmates as humans. The Brazilian Fraternity of Assistance to the Convicted (FBAC), a non-governmental, non-profit entity, oversees a privately-owned prison system, the Association for the Protection and Assistance to the Convicted (APAC). The prisons are nothing like traditional detention centers; the inmates are even given the keys to their own cells, but none leave. APAC operates under the assumption that every person can change under the right circumstances.

Valdeci Ferreira is at the heart of this change. Over the last 30 years, he has worked to increase the number of APAC units from 1 to 49, located in five Brazilian states, accommodating about 3,500 convicts. According to the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, which granted Ferreira one of its 2018 Social Entrepreneur of the Year Awards, the FBAC’s aim is to “congregate, orient and oversee all the APACs, provide training and legal support, and ensure that the prisoner rehabilitation methodology is applied correctly. This includes regular inspections, visits, and support to 100 APACs under implementation.”

Brazilian inmates study at an APAC-run prison (Photo: World Economic Forum, Agenda)

The detention centers focus on preparing inmates to re-enter society, treating them as “recovering persons”. No police or weapons are in sight. The prisoners learn to interact with APAC staff with mutual respect and to uphold such values as society, family, dignity and work. They are also taught responsibility via a structured routine. They rise a 6 AM, working and studying during the day. They only return to their cells at night to sleep. Some begin primary education if they never had one, while others study at the middle school or high school level, or follow vocational training or university courses. Prisoners also participate in sports and the arts. Their jobs are varied, ranging from gardening, baking, cleaning and doing maintenance work, to carpentry. No drugs or cell phones enter the premises. 

According to the European Commission, “the appreciation of the human being and its capacity to recover is a key factor of APAC’s methodology. Treatment [in an APAC facility] is based on strict discipline, family and community participation and the importance of education and work.” Partners in the rehabilitation of convicts in Brazil include the European Union, the European Court of Justice and the State Government of Minas Gerais.

As an alternative to the traditional penitentiary model, APACs now operate in 23 countries, including Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Italy, Germany and Uruguay.