More people are imprisoned in the United States than in any other country, by a wide margin: with five percent of the global population living in its borders, the U.S. holds 25 percent of all prisoners worldwide, or 2.3 million people. And the cost of incarcerating such a large population doesn’t come cheap – the most recent estimate pegs annual spending at $60 billion, or approximately $24,000 per year per inmate. Crime, it would seem, really doesn’t pay.
With budget cuts putting a squeeze on the already bloated incarceration system, lawmakers and prison administrators are being forced to reconsider how they can save money by utilizing technology in new and innovative ways. And it may do American officials some good to look south for an example, to a Brazilian prison that’s experimenting with a new form of alternative energy: the prisoners themselves.
As Brazil’s Jornal Nacional reported last week, one prison in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais called Santa Rita do Sapucai is trying an experimental rehabilitation approach: allowing inmates to reduce incarceration sentences by producing their own electricity.
The basic premise of the voluntary program is simple: For every 16 hours that an inmate pedals, using a special bicycle engineered to charge a battery, he eliminates one day from his prison sentence. At the end of each day, the batteries are taken to the city center, where the electricity is used to power streetlights.
As the program’s inventor, city judge José Henrique Mallmann, told the Jornal Nacional, the purpose of the rehabilitative effort is three-fold: to alleviate boredom, help prisoners stay in shape, and allow individuals to reduce their sentences. Thus far, the program has been massively popular with inmates; the bicycles have been in such high demand that the prison plans to add eight more to the original two.
Although Santa Rita do Sapucai’s pilot program is extremely small-scale – according to io9, the electricity gathered from ten bikes would only be able to power a single avenue – the implications for a similar project on a larger scale are manifold.
Of the U.S.’s annual $60 billion prison budget, a staggering percentage is spent on simply powering the physical facilities. As one wind turbine company explains, “A prison is similar to a hotel, or university, with lodging, showers, [and] food preparation, creating above average energy use.” Electricity cost estimates find that the U.S. spends a minimum of approximately $50,400,000 per month on all prisons nationwide, or $36,000 per month per prison.
Imagine how much electricity could be generated if even a small fraction of inmates participated in a program like that of Santa Rita do Sapucai’s prison, and how much money it could save on operating costs. Additionally, the problem of weight gain among sedentary prisoners isn’t limited to Brazil – the leading chronic medical condition among U.S. inmates is obesity. And, although a bit more radical than most rehabilitative programs in U.S. prisons, the concept of reducing one’s sentence through physical activity could have positive implications for trimming down the overall prison population, which is rapidly spiraling out of control.
Of course, implementing the Brazilian program on such a large scale would come with its own set of challenges. But the innovative concept of creating a mutually beneficial rehabilitative program that comes with the added bonus of producing a reliable source of alternative energy is an idea worth considering.
And who knows – maybe someday, we could each become our own source of renewable energy, pedaling away in our living rooms to light our lamps and heat our water. Stranger ideas have been proposed.