Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Brazilian Inmate Eco-Hamster Wheel Experiment
With a title like that, how can you not read on?
I recently heard a story on NPR about a Brazilian prison that started a program in which prisoners can apply to ride exercise bicycles hooked up to generators, which generate electricty for the city, and at the same time can reduce the prisoners' sentences.
As of now, they have four bicycles installed, which light up ten street lamps in the city's central promenade. They hope to increase it to ten bicycles, which should light up all 34 lamp posts in the city center. Granted, not a panacea for global warming, but it's something. And with 2 million people behind bars in America, that's a lot of lampposts.
As someone who writes about the ills of incarceration in America, I find a number of things fascinating about this seemingly quirky story. First, there is an obvious potential for exploitation, or at least, the perception of exploitation. Yet the story reports that...prisoners were eager to sign up for the program, since they get to take shifts riding the bikes outdoors rather than being cooped up inside. One prisoner was also reported as expressing that his ability to provide something beneficial to the public, even a bit of electricty, made him feel useful and connected to society, whereas he had felt forgotten. Of course, given the well-known racial disparities in American prison populations and the history of the Southern prison system, the prospect of such a program in America may have a different, more pernicious social meaning.
Second is the issue of equivalence. Under the Brazilian program, for every three, eight-hour days the prisoners participate in the program, their sentences are reduced by one day. Implicit in this arrangement, presumably, is the notion that every moment of work done warrants an equivalent reduction in the sentence. I have no information as to whether the prison considered a different relationship with regard to this program, although there is a fair amount of scholarship out there on equivalence generaly.
Third is the "market" for prison labor. As Stephen Garvey and others have discussed, one reason why prison labor is not more prevalent is because of the opposition of labor unions. But presumably, there would be less opposition to such a program because there is no existing market for manual electricity generation.
I am curious if anyone knows of any programs where anything remotely like this has been tried in the U.S., or if there is any academic research on the topic.
Posted by Martin Pritikin on July 18, 2012 at 09:49 AM | Permalink
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This is BS. A pro cyclist puts out some 250W for any appreciable time, so four pro-cyclist prisoners would could put out 1000W, enough to light 10 100W incandescent bulbs--not much for a street lamp. Standard HID street lights operate in the range of 250W-300W, but expensive LED lighting could be used to achieve enhanced lumen output at 100W input.
There is no way that prisoners could do the job for eight hours a day. They could build up a lot of muscle and lose a lot of weight trying. Or they could eat twice as much food.
Brazil would be far better off either imprisoning horses or getting the human prisoners to mine coal to be used for lighting. Such a nonsense project is typical of tree-hugging socialism that has historically maintained Brazil as "the country of the future."
[The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago had a bicycle hooked up to a watt meter. In my youth, I could achieve a max of some 250W for far less than a minute]
Posted by: Jimbino | Jul 18, 2012 11:13:49 AM
Cue the Thirteenth Amendment on the "equivalency" point: Since the Amendment has been (and continues to be) construed by courts as permitting forced labor for convicts, I find it unlikely that efforts to have prisoners earn time off a sentence in exchange for labor will garner much political will (no matter how important-seeming the labor). Parolees or probationers, perhaps, but not those still inside. As an aside, the feds currently use prisoners to assemble solar panels which are then "sold" to other federal agencies. The practice has received some flack b/c of the economics of the arrangement (although critics appear to care little about the coerced labor features of the deal).
Posted by: T-N Henderson | Jul 18, 2012 3:34:37 PM
I should add that, in contrast, Brazil's constitution forbids punishments of "hard labour."
Posted by: T-N Henderson | Jul 18, 2012 3:36:33 PM
Among other reasons, programs like this are a bad idea because they decrease the effective cost of imprisonment without any appreciable benefit to the prisoners, this weakening one important incentive to fix our extreme problem of over incarceration.
Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Jul 18, 2012 4:48:00 PM
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