‘Nobody flees from love’: Brazil’s alternative prisons offer a model of restorative justice
During Holy Week of 2020, Brazil’s Covid-19 cases reached nearly 4 million people, with over 3 percent of those cases resulting in death. A significant number of those cases at that time came from within Brazil’s prison system, which houses about 773,000 inmates and where almost 4 percent of inmates had been infected—more than double the infection rate of the general population.
In Brazil’s overcrowded prisons, it is difficult to maintain social distancing precautions, and violence and inmate riots are a frequent threat. After doors were closed to visitors and Easter break was postponed last year because of the pandemic, inmates rioted at four São Paulo semi-open prisons, where they are allowed to work jobs outside during the day and return at night. More than 400 inmates escaped.
But inside Brazil’s APAC detention sites—for Associação de Proteção e Assistência aos Condenados (Association for Protecting and Assisting Convicts)—that kind of reaction was unknown, and the Covid-19 crisis has been contained. Denio Marx Menezes, director of international relations for Fraternidade Brasileira de Assistência aos Condenados, the association which administers the APAC programs, reports that only 15 out of 5,000 total APAC inmates, just a third of 1 percent, have been infected during the pandemic; none have attempted to escape.
An inmate who escaped from six prisons before entering APAC was asked why he did not attempt to escape anymore. “Do amor ninguém foge,” he replied. “Nobody flees from love.”
What is it about an APAC prison that makes inmates willing to stay?
Mr. Menezes recalled an inmate who escaped from six prisons before entering APAC and who was asked why he did not attempt to escape anymore. “Do amor ninguém foge,” he replied. “Nobody flees from love.”
The better security performance of APAC sites is even more incredible when one considers that APAC facilities do not use prison guards. Select prisoners, in fact, are entrusted with the keys to the prison, enabling them to come and go during scheduled hours. In addition to these unorthodox practices, there are no weapons in the prison and inmates can wear civilian clothes.
All of these measures reflect the unique goals of the APAC model. Considering the treatment and outcomes of prison culture in the United States, it is easy to suspect that the goal of most prisons is simply to punish criminals; APAC programs hope to help them recover.
“We try to teach them as God teaches us: with love,” Mr. Menezes said. His words echo the vision of APAC’s founder Mario Ottoboni, who once said that criminals “are not dangerous people. They are only people who are not sufficiently loved.”
Criminals “are not dangerous people. They are only people who are not sufficiently loved.”
“We help them to acknowledge that they chose to commit a crime and how doing that harms society,” Mr. Menezes said, “but we also give them the tools to make amends and to choose to do good for others.”
The detention program is based on a model of restorative justice, aiming to help inmates reconcile with the people they hurt. “All of this is impossible without knowing the story of each individual inmate,” Mr. Menezes said. “Prisoner workers and volunteers [who comprise APAC staff] take the time to learn each person’s history.”
The first APAC prison was founded in 1972 by a group of Catholics led by Mr. Ottoboni from the local diocese in São José de Campos. They were granted permission to apply what would become the APAC model to an already-existing prison in the city. The association has ties to the larger Fraternidade Brasileira de Assistência aos Condenados—Fraternity of Assistance to the Convicted—and to Prison Fellowship International in the United States.
Mr. Ottoboni oversaw APAC until his death in January 2019, after which Valdeci Antônio Ferreira, was chosen to succeed him. “Crime is the experience of rejection taken to its extreme,” Mr. Ferreira said in an interview included in “Unguarded,” a recently released documentary about APAC prisons. “It is a cry for help. When we feel rejected, we cry out for love, from the cradle to the deathbed…. Ultimately, this cry is a search for God.”
The APAC method is committed to the ideals of restorative justice. It exemplifies the principles of Catholic Social Teaching and testifies to Pope Francis’ assertion that true social change can only be the result of a “culture of encounter.”
“You might think [this method] is just an illusion, that what’s really happening is that they’re encouraging criminality,” said the Rev. Julian Carrón, president of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation. “Instead, it’s an example of what happens when there’s a real encounter. Our problem sometimes is that we…think virtually any other solution, however violent, is more effective than the power of love.”
The presence of volunteers who freely choose to spend their time accompanying the inmates is essential to fostering this environment of love.
Inmates, or recuperandos (people who are recovering from their criminal acts), as they are called, follow a 12-step program and a strict daily schedule. As one of the most well-known APAC slogans puts it: “Here enters the man; the crime stays outside.”
Whether cleaning cells, cooking, gardening, taking classes, praying or playing sports, the inmates are always kept busy from when they wake up at 6:30 a.m. to “lights out” at 10 p.m. “They are not permitted to do nothing,” Mr. Menezes said, “they are always doing something.”
Mr. Menezes believes that all of these daily tasks help to “rescue the dignity of the person”—especially cleaning. “This place is always spotless...everything is so clean.”
Maintaining a clean and beautiful environment is essential to maintaining the inmates’ sense of dignity and humanity, Mr. Menezes said. In addition to learning a skill or craft, working and studying, inmates are required to participate in counseling groups and religious services.
“It’s not easy being in APAC,” Mr. Menezes said. “The daily schedule is demanding. The inmates need to learn to accept the word ‘no’.... You can’t do whatever you want here.
“There are rules, but they can tell the difference between rules motivated by love and rules motivated by power. And they know that they’re not alone. We walk together with them so it’s easier to get through it.” Though some prisons in Brazil do offer optional classes and work training programs, APAC’s programs are mandatory and “part of the proposal, the ethos” of the culture.
“It’s not easy being in APAC,” Mr. Menezes said. “The daily schedule is demanding. The inmates need to learn to accept the word ‘no’.... You can’t do whatever you want here.”
The presence of volunteers who freely choose to spend their time accompanying the inmates is essential to fostering this environment of love. That is part of the reason the onset of the coronavirus in Brazil during the first half of 2020 was especially painful for the inmates at APAC. They could receive no more volunteers nor visits from family.
Having to maintain social distancing required them to modify their daily routine. But after a generous donation from the European Union, the association purchased materials to allow inmates to start making face masks.
“The inmates were sad” during the beginning of the pandemic, Mr. Menezes said, “but making the masks made them excited. It was a way for them to help society and offer something good. It was a chance for them to say to society, ‘See, we aren’t just criminals. We are useful for something.’ It’s amazing how such a simple gesture can rescue the dignity of the person.”
The APAC model has been receiving new attention thanks to “Unguarded.” The documentary's New York-based director, Simonetta D’Italia-Wiener, first found out about APAC through a presentation at the Rimini Meeting, an annual cultural exchange in that Italian city, which “ignited my desire to get to know about them.”
She quickly arranged to travel to the APAC prison in Itauna, Brazil, with a film crew to begin creating the documentary. When she first arrived, she realized that she was “in front of something big. I had to show this world what I was encountering and get to the bottom of this experience.”
While filming on location, Ms. D’Italia-Wiener spent over a week sleeping in a prison cell at APAC Itauna. “The cells are spotless. The [recuperandos],” who live four to a cell in bunk beds, “have to keep their cells clean and neat. A committee of [recuperandos] goes around every day to check,” she said.
“Once a month all of the recuperandi lock themselves in their cells for the whole day in solidarity with those in the regular prisons.”
“If they are not clean, they are summoned by the committee. The [recuperandos] with the cleanest cell get a prize. The walls are colorful and beautifully painted. Everything in the prison is based on beauty, cleanliness and order.”
She was also impressed by the fact that the prison lacked the presence of any armed security guards. It was run solely by recuperandos and volunteers. “When they disobey rules, they have a big white board that explains consequences for different levels of disobedience,” Ms. D’Italia-Wiener said. “If the offense is grave enough, they’ll have to go to court where the judge will decide if they’ll have to be taken back to the regular prison system. Smaller offenses will result in a consequence like having to stay in one’s cell for a whole day, as a reminder of what they are missing out on.
“Once a month,” she added, “all of the [recuperandos] lock themselves in their cells for the whole day in solidarity with those in the regular prisons.”
“Unguarded” is set to tour U.S. universities this fall, including at the University of Notre Dame, Loyola University Chicago, the University of Florida and University of Omaha. It will be aired on PBS in the late winter of 2022.
There are over 62 APAC programs and 82 more development in Brazil, and the program has been adopted in 12 other countries. Many Americans who are attracted to the APAC method wonder if it will ever be possible to implement one in the United States.
After a recent screening of “Unguarded” at a transitional work program in Lafourche Parish, La., one inmate told local media, “In our country, prisons are a place where you put someone in and throw away the key. And it suits us because it is a business. APAC is something else: unimaginable, but possible. Because if it is possible there, it is also possible here.”
Lorenn Walker, J.D., the director of Hawai’i Friends of Restorative Justice and an associate professor at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, expressed some reservations about the application of the APAC model in the United States. Ms. Walker can only cite a few examples of U.S. prisons that have experimented with an APAC-style approach to incarceration.
The U.S. Prison Fellowship, which has supported APAC since its beginning phase, “has tried to implement [the model] in American prisons. There are a few prisons that support restorative justice, but only in sections of the prisons.”
“I don’t think American law currently permits incarcerated people to run their prisons/jails like APAC does in Brazil,” she said. That may be because, Ms. Walker said, U.S. culture applies “a pathological lens in considering human behavior. The belief is that their behavior is an inherent part of their ‘personality.’ There is strong belief in genetics and heredity controlling behavior.”
Most Americans, she suggests, are hardly able to imagine “people in prison could manage themselves positively and that they should have the keys to prisons.”
Corrections: Denio Marx Menezes is a spokesperson for the Brazilian Fraternity for Assistance to Convicts, which administers the APAC system, not a spokesperson for APAC directly. Residents of APACs are recuperandos, not recuperandi. The number of APAC recuperandos is 5,000, not 40,000. APAC founder Mario Ottoboni passed away in January 2019, not in 2018. The direct source for comments from Valdeci Antônio Ferreira was not properly cited, and the number of APAC programs under development or already operating and the history of the program was clarified.