Prisoners Pedal For Parole In Small Brazilian City

Audie Cornish talks with Associated Press reporter Jenny Barchfield about an inventive new program in one Brazilian prison where inmates can shorten their sentences by biking to generate energy for the town.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Here's an idea for towns struggling to keep the lights on and looking for innovative ways to engage their local prison population: biking. In a small city in Brazil, a handful of prisoners are generating electricity by riding stationary bikes, and they're reducing their sentences as they pedal.

Jenny Barchfield is the AP correspondent in Rio de Janeiro and she wrote about this program. Hi there, Jenny.

JENNY BARCHFIELD: Hello.

CORNISH: And to start, where did this idea come from?

BARCHFIELD: This idea came from the town judge in an interior state of Brazil called Minas Gerais, it's a small city. And he got this idea by looking to a story on the Internet, where he saw about gyms in California where the gym users were creating the electricity for the gym by using stationary bikes. And he thought, why not apply the same idea to a prison in the local town? And he's created this program about two months ago.

CORNISH: And help us understand the setup. Is this like the exercise of the prison? Are these guys kind of on the bikes all day long? How does it work?

BARCHFIELD: The prisoners have to actually apply to participate in this program because, so far, it's a very small program. There only four bikes which were donated by the local police. They came actually from the lost and found. And they've been fitted out to generate electricity, that the wheels were taken off and they're hooked up to equipment that allows the electricity they create to be stored.

And they spend - instead of sitting all day in their cells, they spend it outside in the courtyard where these four stationary bikes are. And they take turns basically all day long peddling and creating electricity.

CORNISH: For bikes, I mean, how much can you really light up with for bikes?

(LAUGHTER)

BARCHFIELD: Well, for the moment, they're lighting up 10 lampposts on a promenade next to a river that goes to the middle of the city. And the plan is once they get more bikes that they will be able to light up all 34 light posts in the center of the town.

CORNISH: Now, you said that the prisoners had to apply to be in the program. What's in it for them? I mean, is it a hard sell?

BARCHFIELD: It's not a hard sell at all. When I spoke to the director he said that a lot of the prisoners had expressed interest in participating in this program. There are several benefits for the prisoners. The first and foremost benefit is that by peddling they can actually get their sentences reduced. For every three, eight-hour days that they do, they get one day taken off their sentence. And that's one motivation.

But I also spoke to one of the prisoners who said that he had felt sort of forgotten by society before. And by participating in this program, he said he felt useful finally.

CORNISH: Has anyone raised concerns about the program?

BARCHFIELD: You know, I think in Brazil it's widely recognized that Brazilian prisons are kind of dismal places. Human rights groups have repeatedly blasted Brazil for having really dismal conditions inside prisons, with lots of overcrowding and lots of violence. And so, I think that people here know that anything that institutions can do to rehabilitate these people and make sure they don't go back to prison is a positive thing.

CORNISH: Jenny Barchfield, thank you

BARCHFIELD: Thank you.

CORNISH: Jenny Barchfield is AP correspondent in Rio de Janeiro. She was talking about a program in one Brazilian prison where inmates bike to power local streetlights.

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