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World From the archives: Brazilian inmates offered reduced sentences for reading books

Policemen stand inside a federal penitentiary in Catanduvas in Brazil's southern state of Parana.

Jamil Bittar/Reuters

This article was originally published in July of 2012.

For Brazilian convicts, summer reading may be far more than just a flight of fancy.

It offers shorter sentences.

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Aside from a plethora of poor plays on words as the media seized on the story, the announcement that Brazil's federal corrections program was offering to slice four days off a convict's time (with a maximum of 48 days a year) for every book read – and properly written book report submitted – rekindled a long-running debate about high rates of illiteracy among prisoners.

Brazil's "Redemption through Reading" program, announced in June, is the latest in a long series of efforts seeking to educate the incarcerated in an effort to reduce recidivism and give convicts a different view of the world "outside." Only certain inmates will be eligible for the program, but Brazil plans to try it out with some of the nation's toughest criminals at four high-security prisons. Those who participate will have four weeks to read each book and then must submit a report.

Whether Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace will count the same as Jack London's short story To Build a Fire isn't clear. The Brazilian government's prisons branch hasn't issued detailed requirements nor an approved list of books. Perhaps Papillon, the memoir by convicted murderer Henri Charrière, who escaped a notorious South American prison, lacks the preferred rehabilitative tone, even if it is regarded as a modern classic. Similarly, Victor's Hugo's Hunchback of Notre-Dame might raise some doubts about appropriateness. So too: Los Amigos del Crimen Perfecto by Andrés Trapiello.

Still, once the program gets under way, it should be fascinating to compile a 10 Best Read list.

"A person can leave prison more enlightened and with an enlarged vision of the world," Sao Paulo lawyer Andre Kehdi told Reuters, which first reported the program. Mr. Kehdi heads a book donation project for prisons.

In Canada, two out of three convicts have low literacy skills and nearly a third have failed to finish elementary school.

Studies, notably in Britain, suggest an inability to read (or a lack of access to books) may result in "long periods of isolation with little mental stimulus [which] contributed to poor mental health and led to intense feelings of anger, frustration, and anxiety."

Although there are no programs in Canada that link reading to reduced prison sentences, tutoring and literacy programs in Canadian penitentiaries claim significant successes.

Some studies – including a now-disputed 1995 survey by Corrections Canada – suggest a recidivism reduction of nearly 30 per cent among inmates who had successfully completed literacy courses behind bars.

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