Brazil's Incredibly Radical Approach to Prisoners Is Worth Discussing

November 1st 2015

Alex Mierjeski

In his final years as president, Barack Obama has made criminal justice reform a top priority, lending weight to existing efforts from lawmakers and policy advocates, celebrities, and top law enforcement officials bent on scaling back past approaches to incarceration. Across issues like sentencing, incarceration, treatment, and rehabilitation, policymakers look to scholarly research and examples from other reform efforts to glean what might and what might not work.

There are a handful of recurring players when it comes to unique prison reform efforts—including northern European countries like Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands, as well as South Africa, and the Dominican Republic.

One system left out of the conversation is Brazil's, where overcrowding, violence, and generally poor conditions run rampant in prisons—earlier this month, Human Rights Watch called the system a "human rights disaster." But this week, Brazil's violent offenders were in the news for alternative rehabilitative and therapeutic treatments they can undergo.

RELATED: Thousands Of U.S. Prisoners To Be Released This Month

Inmates learn ceramic and painting skills.

A Terapeuta e Artista plástica voluntária Euza Beloti ensinando aos detentos participantes do Projeto Iluminar, novas técnicas de pintura, em peças de cerâmicas produzidas na Acuda.

Posted by Acuda Porto Velho on Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A prisoners' rights nonprofit group called Acuda "trains prisoners in spiritual and physical healing practices," Reuters wrote in a photo report. Things like spiritual and physical healing, Ayurvedic massage, and even ancient Amazonian psychedelic tea ceremonies are taught to murderers, thieves, sexual abusers, and other criminals—in addition to more traditional vocational training in fields like car repair.

Prisoners have to meet strict requirements in order to participate in the programs, something prison officials said gives inmates incentives to behave. But testimony from those who participate in things like ear candling, clay therapy sessions, dancing, meditation—even the consumption of psychadelics—indicates positive outcomes on prisoners' outlook.

Inmates practice ear candling, an alternative general treatment, on one another.

Atividade terapêutica complementar do Cone chinês realizado todas as quinta feiras para os detentos que participam do...

Posted by Acuda Porto Velho on Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Thank God, after four months in prison, I started on the Acuda project," one inmate serving time for murder and drug trafficking told Reuters. "The project taught me a more spiritual way of living. I don't have the words to describe what Acuda has done for me."

"I didn't know how to do anything—just bad things," the prisoner, five years into a 30-year sentence, said. "Today I am a mechanic, a sculptor, a masseur and other things."

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Alternative therapies could prove useful for stunting high recidivism rates in the U.S.—especially when it comes to violent offenders. According to one Bureau of Justice Statistics report on the reoffending rates of prisoners in 30 states, released in 2005, found that violent offenders had more than a 70 percent chance of being rearrested. Still, some have balked at the idea of allowing violent offenders any freedoms outside of recreation in the prison yard, like fighting fires for the state of California, for example.

With current rates of recidivism as high as they are, however, policymakers could look to alternative methods of therapy and vocational training to both save money in the long run by avoiding former inmates returning to prison, and to pave the way for a better quality of life for offenders.

"I'm finally realizing I was on the wrong path in this life," an inmate serving time for homicide—and who had participated in an ayahuasca ceremony—told the New York Times in March. "Each experience helps me communicate with my victim to beg for forgiveness."

RELATED: Why Norway Helps Prisoners And America Fails Them