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PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – Wagner Luiz Gomes dos Santos, 41, works as a gardener at the Guarapari courthouse in Espírito Santo.
But he wants more out of life.
Santos is preparing to take the college entrance exam to study mechanical engineering.
“Then, I want to focus on passing the competitive exam to work at Petrobras or another major company,” says Santos, who two years ago didn’t even have a grade school diploma.
Santos earned his high school diploma through a GED course, while serving time for robbery at a prison in Espírito Santo.
“Studying is the only way to improve your life,” says Santos, who also took job training courses to prepare for entering labor market. “It’s a good thing I was able to do this while there was still time.”
Santos, however, wasn’t released upon serving his 16-month sentence.
He was locked up for two more months because his release date was not recognized – and he might have spent more time behind bars had it not been for the Prison Task Force.
In June 2010, Santos was finally freed with the help of the Starting Again program, enabling him to leave behind his life of crime.
He’s among the 21,003 people in Brazil who were being illegally imprisoned and were released due to the Prison Task Force’s work the last two years.
Between 2010 and 2011, 246 judges and public servants in this initiative by Brazil’s National Justice Council (CNJ) visited prisons, jails and police stations and reviewed about 300,000 cases, finding thousands of prisoners who had fulfilled their sentences but were still behind bars.
Sergipe: Next stop
By the end of the month, when Luciano Losekann, the coordinator of the CNJ’s Monitoring and Inspections Department for the Prison System, visits Sergipe, the Task Force will have visited all of the country’s 26 states and the Federal District.
More than 40,000 inmates have benefited from the initiative since it started in 2008, according to the CNJ.
The CNJ found during its review of tens of thousands of cases that prisoners who should have been paroled or released were still behind bars. And inmates who should have been moved from maximum to minimum security prisons, or from minimum security facilities to work release, hadn’t been transferred.
Prisoners who earned benefits for good behavior hadn’t been provided them, according to the CNJ.
Santos has motivated those working with former inmates.
“The courses and professional training paths chosen by Santos are tools that allow people to give up crime, because they begin to have different values,” says Quésia Cunha de Oliveira, the director of re-socialization for the Espírito Santo Secretary of Justice.
The goal, Quésia says, is to prevent former inmates from returning to the same socially vulnerable environment that landed them in prison.
“There is a lot of prejudice against people who have gone to prison,” she says. “People close themselves off.”
Therefore, there has been a major effort to erase that stigma of violence, Quésia says.
In Espírito Santo, for example, businesspeople are invited to visit prisons to meet inmates.
“We need to change people’s impression that everyone in jail is prone to violence,” Quésia says. “When businesspeople talk to the prisoners, their resistance diminishes.”
Investigation Committee introduced the solution
The Prison Task Force was one of the solutions suggested by the Congressional Investigation Committee examining Brazil’s prison system, which identified inconsistencies while visiting the country’s prisons in August 2008.
“We saw that there were a lot of people with expired sentences, or who should be serving under less severe terms, and they were unable to access these rights,” Losekann says. “There were also people suffering from untreated health problems.”
In their estimated 900 trips to correctional facilities throughout Brazil, CNJ representatives found overcrowded prisons, shipping containers being used as cells, and people unlawfully incarcerated.
“In Espírito Santo, in 2008, we found a man who had been locked up for 11 years without ever being sentenced,” Losekann says. “That demonstrates the importance of the judiciary, as well.”
The reports from these trips pushed the federal government to create a specific department to track prisoners.
The Monitoring and Inspections Department for the Prison System and the System of Socio-educational Measures was introduced in 2009, under Law 12,106, with the aim of monitoring and inspecting compliance with the National Justice Council’s recommendations and resolutions, among other measures.
One of the major advances introduced to the Brazilian prison system by the Prison Task Force was the standardization of criminal sentencing.
“We needed to address this issue because each professional was treating criminal cases in a different way,” Losekann says. “The CNJ’s initiative demands effective actions by judges and greater control by the states.”
One focus of the Task Force is attacking what the CNJ says it classifies as an excess of pre-trial detention.
About 40% of Brazil’s prison population are awaiting trial.
“Often the person is awaiting judgment behind bars and spends more time in custody waiting for the sentence than the actual time specified by that sentence,” Losekann says.
Another tool that streamlines the work of judges is the sentencing calculator.
Prior to its introduction, each court had a manual system for determining the terms of each prison sentence.
Now, the calculator, which is available on the CNJ’s website, standardizes the system, avoiding mistakes.
When a problem, such as using shipping containers to cage inmates, is identified at the governmental level, the CNJ suggests alternatives.
New penitentiaries are being built in accordance with an agreement signed with the CNJ.
“Now, Espírito Santo is considered a model state [correctional facility],” Losekann says.
Another CNJ initiative involves ending jails inside police stations. Currently, 60,000 inmates are held in these types of jails nationwide.
“We need to invest in provisional detention centers,” Losekann says. “The police don’t need to maintain jails. It’s outside their scope of duty.”
More prisons also need to be built in order to make room for the growing inmate population. According to CNJ calculations, an additional 147,000 beds are needed to accommodate the entire population in a safe and secure manner.
The Prison Task Force also wants to reintegrate former prisoners into society.
To do this, the CNJ created the Starting Again program, which seeks opportunities in the job market for current and former inmates. The legal benefits of hiring current and former prisoners are explained in the CNJ’s Employer’s Handbook.
“In addition to the economic benefits for those who are hiring, giving a chance to a former inmate goes a long way toward preventing that person from committing a new offense, helping them stay away from crime,” Losekann says. “Hiring a former inmate breaks that vicious cycle and serves as an effective tool for combating violence.”