Avid readers may know the joys of "escaping into a good book", but this week, the Brazilian government brought new meaning to the phrase with the announcement of its Redemption Through Reading programme.

The programme offers prisoners the opportunity to reduce their custodial sentences by reading works of literature, philosophy, science or classics. According to Reuters, the scheme is being rolled out in four federal prisons holding some of Brazil's most notorious criminals.

Prisoners selected by a special panel will be able to shave four days off their sentence per book read, up to a maximum of 12 books or 48 days per year. They'll have four weeks to read each book and write an essay which must "make correct use of paragraphs, be free of corrections, use margins and legible joined-up writing."
Few details of the scheme are available, but it's an interesting concept. Can reading really help with rehabilitation?

Or perhaps the question should be, can education help with rehabilitation? Because reading and analysing works of literature, philosophy, science or classics assumes a standard of literacy that many who end up behind bars - at least in this country - do not possess.


Up to 90% of New Zealand prisoners cannot read and write well, according to a 2010 statement to parliament by then Minister for Corrections Judith Collins. The Department of Corrections has since been busy embedding literacy and numeracy education into vocational training programmes.

It's clear that helping prisoners with low levels of literacy to improve basic reading and writing skills has the potential to transform their experiences once released from prison, by enhancing job prospects and their ability to engage in society. Everyday actions like filling in a form, reading a job sheet, reading a bus timetable or applying for a driver's licence require literacy or numeracy skills many of us take for granted.

But Brazil's Redemption Through Reading scheme appears to have a different purpose than simply encouraging literacy or reading. The focus on texts of science, literature, philosophy or classics seems designed to encourage prisoners to challenge their mode of thinking or take a more expansive view.

Speaking about the scheme, Sao Paulo lawyer Andre Kehdi, who heads up a book donation project for prisons, told Reuters that "a person can leave prison more enlightened and with a enlarged vision of the world."
"Without doubt they will leave a better person."

Maybe they will, maybe they won't.

Arguably there are many benefits to ensuring prisoners' minds are kept active. Research published in the British Medical Journal in 2003 concluded that a lack of mental stimulation in prison contributes to poor mental health, frustration, anger, anxiety and even drug use.

But it's not readily apparent, to me at least, how knowledge of classical subjects would translate into a reduction in violent offending or anti-social attitudes, let alone other barriers to rehabilitation like long term addiction and association with other criminals.

The Redemption Through Reading scheme seems likely to benefit those prisoners who already have a reasonable standard of education, rather than those who might benefit most from applying themselves to reading.

Besides, any kind of literacy or educational scheme for prisoners also requires adequate resources and support, such as tutors to guide the students through the books, assist them in writing essays and provide critique. A tall order in a field where staff and resources are often stretched.

Interestingly, this is not the first time reading has been used to reduce time in custody. In May a Californian judge made headlines when she released a man awaiting trial for attempting to sell a grenade launcher, on condition he read "at least one hour every day, and...write reports on those books for at least 30 minutes every day."

Why such a requirement was appropriate in that case or how it would be monitored, was not spelled out by the judge.

Such a carrot-dangling approach is by no means assured of inspiring an ongoing love of books or learning. But in Brazil at least, it seems the authorities have enough faith in the transformative power of books to give it a try.

What do you think? Should prisoners be able to reduce custodial sentences by taking part In literacy or education schemes?