Evan Williams of SBS Dateline at APAC prison (Association for Protection and Assistance of Convicts) in São João Del Rei, in the documentary Prison With No Locks.
Evan Williams of SBS Dateline at APAC prison (Association for Protection and Assistance of Convicts) in São João Del Rei, in the documentary Prison With No Locks.

A prison with no locks is not as dumb as you think

THE thick metal door slams shut behind us, the bolt clanks, the key turns in the lock and we are inside the high security section of São João Del Rei prison in Brazil.

There are no guards here, no dogs, no entrance cages. We walk into the jail and are greeted instead by prisoners, they control the main gates, they have the keys and decide who comes and goes.

It's not a mutiny, take over or a riot - it's by design. This is a prison run by prisoners and we are now inside.

We are taken first to the cells - each one sleeping eight men in neatly ordered beds. Prisoners are inspecting each cell, checking the beds, the drawers underneath, the small bathroom and shower at the end. A quick look and nod in agreement and they make a note on their clipboard - a small trophy is awarded to the neatest cell - a squishy plastic pig to the cell that needs improvement.

We move on to a meeting where prisoners are deciding if one of their fellow inmates has broken a prison rule and, if he has, how he should be punished.

 

The man they are judging is a convicted murderer. He calmly accepts their right to do this - then walks us out through a gate at the back of the jail to an open forested area where he raises - and slaughters - pigs for the prison inmates.

"I have knives to kill the pigs," he says, "I came out here once with a rival and could have easily killed him, but it never occurred to me."

Pointing to the open woodland and hills around us "and I never think of trying to escape," he says, "because I know the consequences are grave."

Back inside we find prisoners in mandatory school, making craft and then in charge of scooping out large servings of food to each other for lunch. A barber uses clippers and a razor blade to trim and style the hair of fellow inmates - implements that can be turned into weapons in any other prison.

The prison looks like many others, but inside something extraordinary is going on. Picture: Dateline, SBS
The prison looks like many others, but inside something extraordinary is going on. Picture: Dateline, SBS

"When you first arrive you think it's a trick, that they want you to escape so they can shoot you," says a prisoner. "But then the other inmates approach and help you understand that it's different here and slowly you accept that we can help each other."

It is different here and there are some fundamental reasons this system seems successful in slashing repeat offending from 80 per cent to just 20 - or possibly even less according to one local judge.

I didn't really believe it. But after a week filming inside this APAC jail for Dateline, seeing the prisoners and getting to know a little of their lives, I came away believing there really is something quite extraordinary happening here - a prison that really does seem designed to rehabilitate rather than just punish, creating men and women who appear determined to break the cycle of crime, violence and revenge and return to their families and society as engaged, responsible citizens.

Prison with No Locks on Dateline, Tuesday 16 October at 9.30pm on SBS. The program is available after broadcast via SBS On Demand.

Evan Williams is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.



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