(10 Jul 2012) STORYLINE
A small prison in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil encourages cellmates to shorten their sentence by pedalling on exercise bikes that generate energy to illuminate the town's roads.
Inmate Ronaldo da Silva hops on a bike and pedals away furiously, clocking up several miles before he slows and jumps off.
But despite all his efforts, Silva doesn't get far from the medium-security prison where he's serving a five-and-a-half year long sentence for robbing a bakery.
In fact, he doesn't get anywhere at all because Silva's bike is stationary, bolted to the ground of the prison courtyard.
The only place all his pedalling takes him is incrementally closer to his release.
Silva is part of an innovative programme that allows inmates at a prison in Brazil's south eastern Minas Gerais state to shave days off their sentence in exchange for generating power to help illuminate the town at night.
By pedalling, the inmates charge a battery that's used to power ten street lamps along the town's riverside promenade.
For every three eight-hour days they spend on the bikes, Silva and the programme's other participants get one day knocked off their sentences.
It is one of several new projects being implemented across Brazil, all aimed at thinning out the notoriously overcrowded prisons and cutting down on recidivism by helping restore inmates' sense of self-worth.
Lambasted by critics as too soft on criminals, such initiatives are seen by their defenders as effective ways of breaking the cycle of violence that all too often plagues the country's penitentiaries.
"Here, cycling, we feel more important and more useful. You feel better day-to-day," said Silva, who's already reduced his weight by four kilograms (nine pounds) and his sentence by 20 days.
Clad in red, prison-issue sweat pants and matching T-shirts, he and his fellow cyclists hit the bikes at around nine in the morning and ride until about 5 pm, with breaks for lunch and an afternoon snack.
With just four bikes, the project's eight participants take turns to cycle.
"Today with our project, our idea is they can now exercise, lose weight and at the same time it also benefits them because after every three days of work, their sentence shortens by one day," said prison director Gilson Rafael da Silva.
The two-month-old programme is the brainchild of the town's judge, Jose Henrique Mallmann, who said he got the idea from a story he read on the internet about gyms in the United States where electricity is generated by the exercise bikes.
The municipal police contributed bicycles that had long been lingering in lost property and neighbourhood engineers then helped transform them into stationary exercise bikes, hooking them up to car batteries donated by local businesses.
Area entrepreneurs also pitched in the converter used to transform the battery's charge into the 110 volts needed to power ten of the cast iron street lamps that dot the riverside promenade.
Every night just before sunset, a guard drives the charged battery from the prison, on the outskirts of town, to the downtown promenade.
He hooks it up to the converter and a few minutes later the ten street lamps begin to glow a soft white.
For years the promenade was abandoned after it got dark, but now, newly illuminated, it now attracts dog walkers, joggers and couples walking arm-in-arm.
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