Innovative judge has Brazilian prison inmates cycling to freedom

By Jenny Barchfield, AP

SANTA RITA DO SAPUCAI, Brazil — Brazilian inmate Ronaldo da Silva hops on a bicycle and pedals furiously, clocking up several miles 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 pedaling 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 pedaled off 4 kilograms (9 pounds) 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 p.m., 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. The municipal police contributed bicycles that had long been lingering in the lost and found, and neighborhood engineers helped transform them into stationary bikes and hooked them up to car batteries, donated by local businesses. Area entrepreneurs also pitched in the converter used to transform the battery’s charge into the 110 volts needed to power 10 of the cast iron street lamps that dot the riverside promenade. Every night just before sunset, a guard drives the charged battery from the prison, on the outskirts of town, to the downtown promenade. He hooks it up to the converter and a few minutes later the 10 street lamps begin to glow a soft white, like full moons suspended over the rushing waters of the river.