On July 5 & 6, 2010, I visited two APAC prisons (Associacao de Protecao e Assistencia aos Condenados in English translated as: Association for Protection and Assistance of Convicts) in the city of Itauna, state of Minas Gerias, Brazil. The original APAC prison, which was in San Paulo, Brazil was reportedly the “first contemporary prison” to totally apply a faith-based approach to all parts of prison administration. (See: “Prison Religion: Faith Based reform and the Constitution”, Sullivan, 2009, emphasis in the original, p. 247).

I went to Brazil to learn how restorative justice is applied there, and visited the Itauna prisons at the suggestion of Lynette Parker who works with Dan Van Ness. “This is like no other prison I’ve been in. It focuses on ‘human valorization’ and has been incorporating more restorative elements over the years,” she said. Dan’s book, Crime and Its Impact on Victims, was one of the first that I read about restorative justice. His personal story of how restorative justice helped him inspired me years ago.

I spent a night and a half a day at the APAC Itauna men’s prison, and also visited the women’s APAC prison across town. Both prisons house people convicted for felonies from the most serious to less serious including drug offenses. The men’s prison has two rooms in the administrative wing of the prison for visitors. Even more amazing than being allowed to spend the night at a prison and eat meals with incarcerated people, is that APAC prisons have no guards, instead the people incarcerated have keys to the prison. APAC  prisons also have a recidivism rate that is remarkably low, and has been reported below 5%.

The atmosphere of the Itauna APAC prisons is different from the many others that I have visited on five different continents. While some prisons are labeled “correctional” institutions, like Hawai’i state prisons, APAC prisons are truly places of rehabilitation. They are not like most prisons including the state of Hawai’i, which sadly teach many people how to be better criminals through inhumane and barbaric environments (See: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Zimbardo, 2008, which I wrote a blog about: http://www.lorennwalker.com/blog/?p=57)

APAC’s approach is opposite to most prisons. Instead of making the people incarcerated in them feel bad, guilty, and like failures, APAC works to make people feel worthy, respected, and able to restore their lives. APAC gives people hope that they can contribute something to help others and that they can be of service in some way, no matter what their situation.

APAC’s restorative approach begins with the name it uses to refer to the people who live in these prisons. Instead of calling the people inmates or prisoners, APAC calls the recuperandos because they are “people in the process of rehabilitation.” The late Insoo Kim Berg, co-founder of solution-focused brief therapy, would have loved this name recuperandos because she recognized the importance of language and how our labels influence behavior and our experiences.

APAC began in San Paulo, Brazil about 35 years ago with lawyer and serious Catholic, Dr. Mario Ottoboni who worked with others in the community that were dismayed by the prison system and its penchant for turning out criminals instead of rehabilitated people.

My experience at APAC prisons has also made me more committed to using kindness and compassion rather than anger and resentment for dealing with criminal behavior and the harm that it causes.

There is a lot more to be said about APAC’s approach and I am working on a paper that I hope to complete by the end of the year. It will explore how some of APAC’s principals might be applied without being driven by a religion. As one person who works in the Hawai’i prison said basically:  “Faith-based and spirituality can mean that we have faith in our own, and in other people’s potential to do good. It doesn’t require we be any specific religion to have faith and spirituality.”