You do not know when you will see the light of day. You do not know the hours, days, weeks or months that have passed since you have been here, naked and tightly packed in with other shapes of black.
In the punishment wing in Romeu Gonçalves de Abrantes prison, in the poor, northeast city of João Pessoa, Brazil, disease is left untreated and sick bodies beaten. Cells with a capacity for holding 8 men hold more like 48.
Books may not seem a priority in prisons where people have to struggle for their daily survival. But in June earlier this year, Brazil launched a new program to give inmates in four of its max-security prisons, like João Pessoa’s, an incentive to read.
“Redemption through Reading” allows inmates to curtail their prison sentence by four days with every book they read and write a report on. They have up to a month to read each book which, if they average 12 a year, is six times more than the typical Brazilian. The reading scheme, aimed at widening the prisoners’ field of vision and narrowing their desire to recommit crimes, will be difficult to undertake for the two thirds of the country’s prison population who did not finish primary school. But for the inmates who can see their sentence reduced, and the police who might even see less crime on the streets, it is surely worth it.
On the other side of the prison bars, in Mexico’s Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl (Neza), books are also prized for their power to make people better. In a municipality savaged by poverty and crime, the police’s closest ally used to be corruption. That is, until books took its place. For Luis Sanchez, the municipal president, a policeman who reads can learn to see with the eyes of the people around him.
A reading list was circulated among Neza’s police force as a part of Sanchez’s initiative, which was put into practice in 2006. Since many could not afford to buy the books, police libraries were created. Workshops were set up to discuss the texts and, while it wasn’t compulsory to attend, you would have more of a chance of promotion if you did. The characters of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Agatha Christie, Edgar Allen Poe and, in particular, Miguel de Cervantes, became the police’s new partners in solving crime.
For Mexico’s police, and Brazil’s prisoners, a book is an aperture onto a life beyond their own; onto friends they would like to have made; places they would like to have seen; people they might have become.
Illustration: Gastón Lisak