Mario Ottoboni
BrazilFellow since 1991

Mario Ottoboni, a lawyer frustrated with the failures of the criminal justice system, has created a highly successful prisoner rehabilitation system.

#Rio de Janeiro#Corrections#Prison#Criminal justice#São Paulo#São José dos Campos#Punishment#Law

The Person

A lawyer and a journalist, Mario Ottoboni held several important positions in the municipal government and with the leading newspaper of Sao Jose dos Campos. During his legal career he was exposed to the harsh reality of the prison system situation. Moved by this experience and deep religious conviction, he and a group of Christian supporters set out to change the system. Mario has written several books about poverty, religion, and his experience at APAC.

The New Idea

When you arrive at the municipal prison in Sao Jose dos Campos (a city of 500,000 people one hour from the state capital), you are received by a prisoner serving a twenty year sentence who holds the prison's keys and another who records your name in a visitor's log book. In the infirmary, an inmate keeps track of supplies. This may be the only prison in the world run by a citizen organization. The Association for Protection and Assistance to the Condemned (APAC) seeks to rehabilitate prisoners--from small time crooks to hardened criminals--by treating them as human beings and restoring their dignity and self esteem. Around 400 prisoners are handled by the APAC at any one time, ranging from a few who are on parole to those who are, under top security, serving decades long sentences. Prisoners from other prisons apply to APAC and are interviewed and classified according to their commitment to become law abiding citizens again. There is a long waiting line for a place at APAC; its reputation is well known among prisoners and their families. "It's synonymous with a chance for a future," says an inmate. Not only is there a future but there is also a present. The prison is clean, the food is reasonably good, and prisoners participate in the decisions concerning their daily lives. They can work on a prison newsletter, help out in the administrative office, take vocational training courses, and/or participate in the prison chorus and athletic activities. What about security? The prisoners keep an eye out for one another. Too much freedom? Not if it works. Worldwide, an average seventy percent of all convicts return to prison eventually. In Brazil the average is seventy five to eighty percent. But at the APAC prison, over the last ten years only four percent of the inmates returned to prison after their release. Furthermore, the crime rate in Sao Jose dos Campos declined thirty percent. APAC has found through trial and error a practical way of restructuring people's dignity. The inmates, called reeducandos (people being reeducated), go through three stages: the closed, the semiclosed, and open regimes. Even in the closed regime there are no police; the inmates deal only with volunteers and prisoners with a higher degree of freedom. At every stage, APAC relies strongly on the relationship among prisoners; for instance, if prisoners go out on errands, they always go in groups, with all sharing the responsibility of "bringing the group back." They have been remarkably successful, with only two escapes in ten years.

The Problem

Brazil's prisons have become notorious. Overcrowding has become chronic, with the typical facility handling twice the number of inmates it theoretically can. Violence is a presence. In Rio de Janeiro criminal organizations not only control major jails, but they impose "taxes" on released inmates and manage illegal businesses and some neighborhoods from jail. None of this is conducive to rehabilitation. Even a decent person anxious to go straight will find it difficult to swim against the tide in such a place. Demoralized and shaken, they are cut off from their families and friends, from their communities and church, and from work--cut off by prison walls, by stigma, and by a preemptive defense against rejection. The alternative society of the jail's criminal subculture, by contrast, is all too present, ready to swallow the inmate. There is no counterbalancing framework. There is no one who believes in the inmate. There is no one there to help. As the public's anger with mounting crime rises, it typically demands more arrests and longer sentences. It may pay for more prisons, but, as Ottoboni points out, no one seems ready to invest in rehabilitation. Moreover, the legal system and its officers tend to be rigid. "The legal system," says Mario, "is not flexible."

The Strategy

APAC's approach is well proven and refined. There is more work to be done at the Sao Jose dos Campos jail, chiefly in terms of expanding the job training and income generating dimension of the program. However, more and more of Mario's time is spent articulating and spreading the idea. More than 130 APAC prisoner support groups now exist around Brazil, and chapters have begun in Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador. However, some of these groups use only part of the APAC method or are experiencing implementation or legal problems. Mario Ottoboni wants to travel throughout Brazil and overseas to show other communities that the APAC prison experience is replicable and to train the people involved. "In Brazil, at least, the only solution is to take this sensitive task of recuperating the prisoners out of the hands of the government," he says. And the way to do it is to recruit volunteers--psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, lawyers, and doctors--to assist and rehabilitate prisoners. At a different level, Ottoboni is trying to convince the legal authorities of APAC's appeal. APAC invites new state prosecutors and judges to visit once they are approved. He has also gained the support of the justice secretary for the state of Sao Paulo and the interest of many academics. APAC's success has attracted the federal government's attention. After learning of the program, the justice ministry sent observers to visit the prison. The result was Law 6416, changing the penal code so that some prisoners nationwide would be allowed passes to attend religious ceremonies, spend Sundays with their families, and, in some cases, work outside the prison walls.