PEDALING TO FREEDOM

Transport, Energy

Santa Rita do Sapucai is a town of 35,000 inhabitants in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil, two hours from Sao Paulo. It is called the "Brazilian Silicon Valley" for its electronics industry, but the truth is that very little ever happens here.

Few attractions exist in Santa Rita. There is the river Sapucai. There is the February carnival, which attracts a few hundred samba dancers once per year. Until a few months ago, Santa Rita was lost and forgotten in the lush Brazilian vegetation. And then something happened. News media across the world turned their attention to the most disreputable place in this tiny town. 

In Santa Rita jail, inmates earn their liberty through exercise. Eight prisoners take turns on four stationary bicycles, each pounding out a hard trail to freedom. 

After reading an article about American prisoners creating electricity through stationary bikes, Santa Rita's local judge, Jose Henrique Mallmann, decided to apply the concept on his home turf. Four street bikes were donated by the police, and converted into stationary exercise bikes. Local businesses donated old batteries, and others volunteered to install a system that would transform mechanical energy into electrical energy, producing enough energy to light up 10 of the 34 lamps that glow over the banks of the river Sapucai. 

Inside the jail, prisoners pedal from 9am to 5pm. They get breaks for meals, and each three-day stint of cycling (24 hours total) reduces the prisoners' sentences by one day. "Everybody wins," argues the prison warden, and he may be right.

Inmates lose weight, improve their health, work productively, benefit the town and feel useful. Moreover, they finally wield some influence over the duration of their prison time. In return, the local community gets light, and with it, a drop in crime. The areas of town that once stood dark and neglected have been taken back by the citizens of Santa Rita, who now walk and play sports under the 10 pedal-powered street lamps.

From the darkness, light.