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Restorative Justice in Brazil: The Educational Method of APAC Prisons

Francesco Occhetta, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, May 15th 2023

Restorative Justice in Brazil: The Educational Method of APAC Prisons
In the dark world of prisons, an experience exists in Brazil that is like a ray of light: there, prisoners are not numbers, rather they are referred to by name; they have tasks to carry out; they are imprisoned in places without bars and without guards; they do not wear uniforms. In these “alternative jails” run by prisoners – called recuperandi (recovering people) – there have been no riots or cases of corruption, while recidivism has been reduced from 85 percent to 15 percent.[1] It does not seem possible, yet experience, data and management costs prove it to be true: the latter have decreased by one third if compared to those run by the State.[2]

For the sake of clarification, it is necessary to state that the educational method of APAC prisons (Association of Protection and Assistance to Convicts) does not foresee any reduction in the rate of custodial sanction. It follows the Brazilian legal system and it is part of the penitentiary system. However, it offers the possibility of humane re-education, rooted in a positive anthropological foundation where the mentality of revenge is not used to repay mistakes made.

At present in Brazil there are 50 prisons managed by APAC, with about 3,500 inmates.[3] This method is used in some prison wings in 23 other countries – such as the Netherlands, Norway, Hungary, the United States, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Singapore. In particular, in Chile there are 23 APAC prisons with 2,500 inmates.

What lesson could be learned from this method to apply to criminal law and the doctrine of international criminal prosecution?

The birth of APAC prisons in the Brazilian context

The first APAC prison was established in the State of Minas Gerais, in the southeast mountain region, thanks to the insight of a lawyer, Mário Ottoboni. It was created in São Paulo in 1972 by a group of volunteers involved in prison pastoral care, forming an association of legal assistance to prisoners; in 1974, it became a civil society organization under private law and an auxiliary justice body. In the 1980s, thanks to Judge Silvio Marques Neto, for the first time, the State entrusted APAC with a prison wing in the São José dos Campos prison in Humaitá, in the State of Amazonas, and then in Itaúna, in the State of Minas Gerais.[4]

The choice of the Brazilian judiciary to endorse the APAC was in a way a certification of this method. From that moment, the partnership model between the State and a civil society organization was consolidated, and it now represents a “third way of recovery” between the prison facility and the individual inmates.

In order to access APAC prisons, inmates with a definitive sentence must submit a written application and must have served a period of detention in a traditional prison. APAC welcomes prisoners who have served several years in prison and who have families in the same district as the prison. Mário Ottoboni expresses his belief as follows: “The human being can be recovered. To make this happen, the inmate must be treated in a human way. Human, but firm.”

Spes contra spem, hope against all hope, underlies the project if one considers the situation of prisons in Brazil, which is one of the most dire in the world. In the last 15 years, the prison population has grown by 74 percent. The number of detainees is close to 650,000, while the country holds the fourth place in the world – after the United States, Russia and China – for prison population. Overcrowding has helped to convert Brazilian prisons into “crime universities,” marked by rebellion and repression, corruption of law enforcement agents, poor hygiene and sanitation conditions, lack of the right to defense and a high rate of drug use. The revolt in the Manaus prison on January 2, 2017, in which dozens of prisoners lost their lives, is just one example.

The average Brazilian inmate is a poor, uneducated young man, with a difficult family situation, often sick (skin diseases, tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS) or addicted to drugs; only 1 percent of the detainees worked at the time they committed their crime; 43 percent of the inmates are people of color. The absence of State control inside Brazilians prisons is likely to be filled by two criminal organizations – the CCP (Primeiro Comando da Capital, “First Command of the Capital”) of São Paulo, and the Comando Vermelho (“Red Command”) of Rio de Janeiro. These organizations offer detainees protection, money, drugs, privileges and economic support to their families. In return, however, inmates are trained during their detention, and they are recruited when they get out.

The social drift that we are witnessing is primarily caused by large numbers. According to Ottoboni, “the best thing would be to have small prisons, where a recovery process could really be carried out. Obviously, building prisons does not get votes, and no city wants them.”[5]

Discipline, work, family, education and spirituality

The APAC experience requires a culture of justice in favor of rehabilitation and reparation. Prison is meant to be a community in which each partner – institutions, prison administration, lawyers, family members and volunteers – has an active role.[6] This is why APAC is recognized as an “auxiliary body of the judicial system, and in this capacity various judges entrusted APAC with the authority to manage various prisons independently … To do this, APAC signs a joint agreement with the judiciary branch and some state governments (Brazil is a federal system), thanks to which judges can send prisoners to its institutions.”[7]

Each prison houses about 200 inmates. They spend about eight hours a day in their cells; the rest of the day is used to carry out activities comprising work, study, professional training and prayer. The cells, which are painted blue (the color of the sky), must be kept in order; the time schedule must be respected; every detail contributes to the weekly evaluation. The cell representative monitors behavior and ensures that no episodes of abuse whatsoever take place; a Truth and Solidarity Council, made up only of inmates, meets to examine problems and propose solutions.

Order, cleanliness and what makes for a pleasant environment are cared for in detail. The working dimension is experienced within a caring relationship and is carried out according to the terms of imprisonment of the recuperando. “For long sentences much time is devoted to ‘therapeutic work,’ through which we try, above all, to stimulate creativity, thinking and self-esteem of the recuperando. In cases of semi-custody arrangements recuperandi are offered training toward a specific profession or trade. Open custody ensures that the recuperandi carry out a working activity outside the center; in this case, work coincides with exercising an activity during the day under specific contract conditions.”[8]

The benefit of the remission of a sentence is calculated on the days of work actually carried out by the inmate: for every three days of work, a day of incarceration is reduced. The relationship with family members is considered therapeutic: this is why inmates are invited to write, have telephone contacts and meet with them on Sunday afternoons.

The APAC pedagogical project can be summarized in 12 points: participation of the local community; the recuperando helps the recuperando; work as therapy; the care of spiritual life; legal assistance; health and psychological assistance; personal promotion; family involvement; the active role of volunteers; the Center for Social Integration (CSI); consideration of merit; days of spiritual retreat.

The APAC model cannot be “transplanted”; they only develop in those cultural backgrounds that are able to welcome them and where there is the political will of local institutions, parish support and a civil society that is actively responsible for the recovery of prisoners.

The judicial culture is against this model. Many judges and politicians are suspicious because they conceive the time spent serving a sentence only as a punishment. Are arrests and detention really enough to heal a society? In the past, in the State of São Paulo there were 30 APACs; then, little by little, they were closed, and prisoners were transferred to larger prisons. However, the numerous testimonies of recovered prisoners counter the skepticism regarding the social and re-educational function of this model.

Punishment theories should stem from experience. Ottoboni adds: “A person who has never lived in prison and refuses to humbly learn with prisoners, will always remain a theoretician who is far removed from reality. Either you learn from living together with them, or you live speculating.”[9]

The experience of forgiveness

The writing on APAC walls speaks clearly: “People are not their mistakes.” The aim is to distinguish the people from the crime and give them back the hope they can make a change through the experience of forgiveness that stems from spiritual life and prayer. Forgiveness entails allowing for the recuperandi to recover the disordered threads of their lives and to separate the evil that was done from the good. Bitterness, hatred, resentment, guilt, fear and revenge are some elements of the “inner prison” from which one must free oneself, a sort of prison within the prison. The pain caused by what one has done, lived in front of the victims’ faces, is the condition for envisaging one’s wounds in a larger mosaic.

We define this anthropological process of inner re-composition and truth as “forgiveness.” For those who believe, without living this experience before God, the evil done will not be recognized as such, and whoever committed it will continue to self-justify. Valdeci António Ferreira, General Manager of the APAC coordination association explains: “Convicts generally do not feel guilty. They say: ‘I stole, but in this country everyone steals! I did not sell drugs; it was the others who bought them! I did not rape a woman; it was she who provoked me!’ This is why, thanks to the work of volunteers and the support of other inmates who have recovered, we try to put in place the ‘therapy of reality’: everyone must be confronted with the evil he has committed, the mistakes he has made.”[10]

However, when someone deserves punishment, he is not punished; rather, he is accompanied in an environment of prayer and meditation. Moreover, APAC proposes to recuperandi an experience which is similar to the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, which lasts for four days and allows for “having the experience of Christ.”

The next step is the meeting with the victims, who are active parties in the program. “Taking care of a detainee’s life is the beginning of a real change in society. Reconciliation may arise from this act of reparation made to the victim. In any case, the vicious circle of delinquency and evil is thus broken, making it possible to reintegrate these men and women in their families, in the life of their city.”[11]

Here we will only recall the experience of Raimunda, the mother of a murdered boy, who is a volunteer and responsible at an APAC reintegration center. “Since the day my son was killed, I plunged into a deep reflection. I was always thinking of the murderer’s family, especially his mother. It must be really sad to look at your son, being aware that he is a killer. When I understood that that mother’s suffering was greater than mine, I decided to forgive him. One day we met on the street, we hugged each other, and she could not stop crying. … I feel a great sorrow for my son, but even if I hated his killer, he would not come back to life anyway.”[12]

Valdeci António Ferreira says: “APAC is not a factory, nor a machine which produces results in terms of social rehabilitation, as if this long, painful and difficult process were something mechanical, which works regardless of people’s freedom. There is instead a need for a great deal of patience. Everyone needs their time. And time belongs to God.”[13] In fact, “APAC prisons are not just a model of recovery of the detainees, but also a real alternative in terms of the expiation of the sentence.”[14]

A confirmation of this is the strength of many silent testimonies. During his detention, a murderer who did not find peace was wondering: “How will I repair the crime I committed? How can I give back life?” After deciding to donate a kidney, he showed his scar, saying: “I killed a person, but now I have saved another one.”

Also Daniel Luis Da Silva, 32, sentenced to 37 years of prison, said: “In prison I experienced hell on earth; I was begging the guards to kill me, so as not to continue living in that way. I did not ask to be born in the family where I was born; it was not my dream to become like this.”[15]

Good fruits always come from deep roots such as generosity and competence. Except for administrative staff paid by the State, all APAC employees are volunteers: psychologists, social workers, lawyers, doctors, teachers. It is they who give hope to the prisoners with the slogan: “You are not alone, you are not abandoned to your own destiny.”

* * *

The UN has recognized the APAC method at a global level. Renowned people such as Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, Bishop Ivo Lorscheiter and Archbishop Luciano Mendes de Almeida have supported this method, and the Brazilian Episcopal Conference considers it as the best example of prison pastoral care. In its own small way, APAC makes Pope Francis’ dream come true. He has affirmed that “the mercy of God is able to transform hearts, and is also able to transform prisons into an experience of freedom.”[16]

Even the media has been studying this model since two famous men served their time in an APAC prison: Bruno Fernandes de Souza, goalkeeper of the popular Flamengo football team, accused of having planned the barbaric murder of his lover, Eliza Samudio; and Marcos Valério, an advertising executive involved in the Mensalão political scandal during the Lula government. While filming a video about an APAC prison, a journalist asked one of the inmates: “José, you escaped from all the prisons where there were prison officers, but from here, however, you’ve never tried to do it. How come?” The answer was: “Because no one flees from love.”[17]

Marta Cartabia, vice president of the Constitutional Court, declared: “The most problematic issue of traditional justice from a conceptual point of view, as Paul Ricoeur noted, ‘is that even the most civilized actions of justice, and particularly those made in the criminal sphere, still maintain the visible sign of that original violence that is revenge.’ In the situation that we have inherited, we must push our reflection on justice forward; we must experiment with new forms that integrate and better accomplish the thirst for justice that is always inexhaustible.”[18]

For criminal law, this model represents a strong process centered on the person. Rehabilitation includes the deepest aspect of the human being, his spiritual life. Civil society takes an active part in this recovery process.[19] In Italy, some first timid steps are being taken to establish communities similar to the APAC ones and to establish alternative sentences rooted in restorative justice.[20]

[1] The average world rate of recidivism is around 70 percent.

[2] The minimum cost of a prisoner for the Brazilian Finance Ministry in the ordinary public system is R$3,000 (around US$980 per month,); in APAC prisons it is R$950 (around US$300).

[3] Forty of these APAC prisons are located in the State of Minas Gerais and 10 are in other States: Maranhão, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraná and Espírito Santo. Some 147 APAC associations have been created that are capable of running a new Center of social reintegration.

[4] Under APAC history, it is good to recall the witness of Franz de Castro Holzwarth, a friend of Mário Ottoboni. Both had been called to talk to prisoners during the riot in the Jacarei prison, on February 14, 1981. They were able to free hostages, but Castro Holzwarth was killed, shot 38 times in the confrontation between the police and detainees. In 2009 the process for his canonization was opened.

[5] R. Marcoccia, “Il metodo APAC Carceri senza polizia,” interview of Mário Ottoboni, October 10, 2017, in

[6] AVSI (Associazione volontari servizio internazionale – Association of Volunteers for International Service) has been supporting APAC since 2009 and it has been encouraging its spread to other regions of Brazil, thanks to European Union funding.

[7] J. Restán, Dall’amore nessuno fugge. L’esperienza delle APAC in Brasile, Catalogo mostra realizzata per la XXXVI Edizione del Meeting di Rimini, edited by J. Restán – J. de la Morena – F. Pellicelli – J. Sabatiello, in cooperation with AVSI Foundation, 25.

[8] Ibid., 44.

[9] J. Restán, Dall’amore nessuno fugge…, op. cit., 19. Cf. M. Ottoboni, Somos todos recuperandos, Belo Horizonte-MG, 2017, 33.

[10] A. Tornielli, “Apac, la vita cambiata di Daniel nelle carceri del Brasile,” August 24, 2016, in

[11] J. Restán, Dall’amore nessuno fugge…, op. cit., 70.

[12] Ibid., 74.

[13] Ibid., 72.

[14] Fabrizio Pellicelli of AVSI explains: “It is all rooted in self-discipline, trust and respect.”

[15] A. Tornielli, “Apac, la vita cambiata di Daniel nelle carceri del Brasile,” op. cit. Cf. G. Meroni, “Apac: il carcere senza chiavi da cui nessuno fugge,” August 23, 2016, in

[16] Francis, Letter according to which an indulgence is granted to the faithful on the occasion of the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, September 1, 2015, in

[17] J. Restán, Dall’amore nessuno fugge…, op. cit., 77.

[18] M. Cartabia, “La giustizia riparativa. Prospettive,” August 24, 2017, in

[19] The Rimini Meetings have the merit of presenting the APAC model in Italy, during two conferences, on August 23, 2016 and August 24, 2017, chaired by Marta Cartabia.

[20] The Comunità Papa Giovanni XXIII in Rimini is using this method in working with some inmates in the last period of their sentence, before their social rehabilitation.

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