With more than half a million inmates, nearly half of them in pre-trial detention, Brazil's prisons are among the most overcrowded and violent in the world. Not exactly a place where innovative penal thinking stands much chance, you may think. But think again. For Brazil's prison crisis is now the midwife of some inventive programmes to boost early release from which Britain, with our own prison overcrowding problems, could learn. In one new green scheme, for instance, Brazilian prisoners can exercise on stationary bikes which charge batteries to power local street lighting; in return for every three eight-hour shifts, the inmates get a day off their sentence ? as well as losing weight and getting fitter. Even more novel, so to speak, is a "redemption through reading" scheme in which prisoners in four of the country's toughest jails get four days off their sentence for reading a classic work of literature, philosophy or science, and writing an essay about it ? up to a limit of 12 books a year. Prison reading and writing have always been a route to rehabilitation; like the enforced period of study that helped turn the provisional IRA towards the peace process. But why stop there? Reading should never be seen as a punishment, but it could be a useful new alternative to custody as well as a passport out of it. Instead of sentencing some offenders to prison, courts could require them to read classic novels ? the complete novels of James Joyce, for instance, with time off for finishing Finnegans Wake.
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