Image: Ronaldo da Silva, left, and fellow inmates pedal stationary bikes to charge car batteries at a prison in Santa Rita do Sapucai, Brazil
Felipe Dana  /  AP
Ronaldo da Silva, left, and fellow inmates pedal stationary bikes to charge car batteries at a prison in Santa Rita do Sapucai, Brazil on Friday. An innovative program allows inmates at this medium-security prison to shave days off their sentences in exchange for riding stationary bikes hooked up to converted car batteries that are used to illuminate Santa Rita do Sapucai's town square.
updated 7/11/2012 5:10:40 AM ET 2012-07-11T09:10:40

Brazilian inmate Ronaldo da Silva hops on a bicycle and pedals furiously, clocking up several miles before slowing down and jumping off.

Silva hasn't gotten far, in fact not an inch. He's still inside the medium-security prison where he's serving a 5.5-year sentence for holding up a bakery, standing next to a stationary bike.

But he did move a bit closer to freedom. Silva is part of an innovative program that allows inmates at a prison in Brazil's southeastern Minas Gerais state to reduce their sentences in exchange for generating power to help illuminate the town at night.

By pedaling the prison's stationary bikes, the inmates charge a battery that's used to power 10 street lamps along the town's riverside promenade. For every three eight-hour days they spend on the bikes, Silva and the voluntary program's other participants get one day shaved off their sentences.

PhotoBlog: Prisoners pedal to freedom on stationary bikes in Brazil

It is one of several new projects being implemented across Brazil, including literacy and book-reading programs, all aimed at thinning out 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 reigns in the country's penitentiaries.

"We used to spend all day locked up in our cells, only seeing the sun for two hours a day," said 38-year-old Silva, whose missing front teeth speak to a life of hardships and privation. "Now we're out in the fresh air, generating electricity for the town and at the same time we're winning our freedom."

Silva has already pedaled off 9 pounds — and 20 days from his sentence.

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 p.m., with breaks for lunch and an afternoon snack.

The resistance is strong, and the inmates soon work up a sweat, though the crisp mountain air of Santa Rita do Sapucai — a city of about 35,000 nestled in a mountain range about two hours northwest of Sao Paulo — keeps them cooler than they'd be in most other parts of tropical Brazil. With just four bikes, so far, the project's eight participants take turns relieving one another.

The two month-old program 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.

'Win-win situation'
The municipal police contributed bicycles that had long been lingering in the lost and found, and neighborhood engineers helped transform them into stationary bikes and hooked 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 10 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 10 street lamps begin to glow a soft white, like full moons suspended over the rushing waters of the river.

Long abandoned after dark, the newly illuminated promenade now attracts dog walkers, joggers, kids on bikes and couples walking arm-in-arm.

Another guard comes in the morning to pick up the battery and ferry it back to the prison, where 133 inmates are serving sentences ranging from a few months for burglary and drug charges to up to 34 years for murder.

60 dams in Brazil's Amazon? Controversy spills over into 'Earth Summit II'

The goal is to eventually kit out enough bikes to allow inmate cyclists to power all 34 riverside street lamps, said the prison's director, Gilson Rafael Silva.

"It's a win-win situation," he said. "People who normally are on the margins of society are contributing to the community and not only do they get out sooner in return, they also get their self-esteem back."

Silva, the prison director, said that his is the first Brazilian prison he knows of to have instituted such a power-generating scheme and added that he'd received inquiries from his counterparts in penitentiaries from as far afield as the northern Amazon rainforest state of Para and in Rio Grande do Sul, in the far south.

'Redemption through Reading'
Still, biking is not the only way for inmates in Brazilian prisons to win a quicker release.

In the country's four federal penitentiaries, where the most dangerous offenders are kept, some 400 inmates are reducing their sentences by taking classes and by reading books behind bars.

The so-called "Redemption through Reading" program shaves a month and a half off inmates' sentences for every dozen books they read annually. Under the initiative, inmates are able to choose from a wide range of genres, including literature, science, philosophy and classics.

Slideshow: Brazil’s balancing act (on this page)

To guard against cheating, participants must write a summary of each book, which is reviewed by a judge. The magistrate then decides whether to grant a sentence reduction of up to four days per book, according to the decree that appeared last month in the government's official gazette. Capped at 12 books a year, the program can shave up to 48 days a year off of participants' sentences.

That's many times the number of books the average Brazilian reads. A recent survey by Pro-Livro, the lobbying arm of Brazil's publishing industry, suggested the average Brazilian finishes just 2.1 books a year. Though Brazil has made great strides in reducing illiteracy in recent years, one in 10 citizens over the age of 15 still can't read, according to the 2010 census.

In order to combat illiteracy and raise education levels, the federal prisons also offer programs that reduce inmates' sentences in exchange for taking elementary school to college-level classes.

An estimated 500,000 people are serving time in Brazil's prisons, which human rights groups have long complained are plagued by rampant overcrowding, appalling conditions and widespread violence.

The bike initiative and other sentence-reduction programs have come under criticism from victims' advocates and others who contend they coddle people who are meant to be paying for sometimes heinous crimes.

Prison director Silva disagrees.

"People say that we're turning prisons into a kind of luxury hotel," said Silva. "But this is the only hotel I know of where no one wants to stay."

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Dams rising across Brazil's Amazon

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  1. Brazil's biggest infrastructure project -- the $11 billion Belo Monte dam -- is also its most controversial, and one showcased at the international summit on June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro held 20 years after the Earth Summit.

    Opponents, among them Sting and other celebrities, thought they had defeated Belo Monte in 1989 but construction is now well under way as this photo from June 15 shows.

    Proponents tout Belo Monte as a way to make clean electricity for Brazil's booming economy. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. This woman is among the 20,000 or so who will have to relocate when Belo Monte's reservoir floods out existing homes. Seen on June 15, these homes in the outskirts of Altamira are built on stilts to protect against seasonal flooding. Brazil says residents will be compensated; dam opponents are skeptical the locals will come out ahead. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. This bar is among the businesses in Altamira, a city of 130,000, that stand to benefit from the jobs, and spending money, brought in by Belo Monte. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Tribesmen living near the dam site were among those who on June 15 occupied an area along the Xingu River in protest.

    Some 90 miles of river, which includes 2 indigenous tribes and numerous riverside settlements, will become a "dry stretch", says Philip Fearnside, a researcher at Brazil's National Institute for Research in Amazonia.

    "Since the impact on these people is not the normal one of being flooded by a reservoir, they were not classified as 'directly impacted' in the environmental study and have not had the consultations and compensations to which directly impacted people are entitled," Fearnside noted in a recent discussion paper he wrote for the Global Water Forum. "The human rights commission of the Organization of American States (OAS) considered the lack of consultation with the indigenous people a violation of the international accords to which Brazil is a signatory, and Brazil retaliated by cutting off its dues payments to the OAS." (Lunae Parracho / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A woman prepares food on June 14 near the Belo Monte construction site along the Xingu River. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A cyclist in Altamira on June 15 passes graffiti calling Belo Monte, which translates to Beautiful Mountain, a "beautiful mountain of lies". (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Part of the Belo Monte construction site near Altamira is seen on June 15. Up to 230 square miles of rainforest will be flooded by the dam's reservoir.

    "What is most extraordinary," wrote Fearnside, "is the project’s potential impact on vast areas of indigenous land and tropical rainforest upstream of the reservoir, but the environmental impact studies and licensing have been conducted in such a way as to avoid any consideration of these impacts." (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Construction of Belo Monte, part of it seen here on June 15, is just the start of Brazil's plan to build more than 60 dams in the Amazon.

    Fearnside, who expects five smaller dams to be built around Belo Monte to make it more economically feasible, says Brazil has trampled over its environmental laws in a rush to build its energy infrastructure. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Belo Monte opponents march through Altamira on June 15. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The June 15 occupation of part of the dam site included opponents forming the words "Stop Belo Monte" and digging a breach in an earthen dam across part of the Xingu River. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A worker repairs a power line in Altamira on June 17. The benefits of Belo Monte -- cheap electricity -- make it an easier sell among residents of Brazil's urban cities. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The Juruna indigenous people live along the Xingu. Children attend class on May 30 at a school on the riverbank. (Evaristo Sa / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Cristiane Rodriguez stands with her children Gleciane, bottom, and Rodrigo on June 15 at their home in the Altamira neighborhood that will be flooded out by Belo Monte. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Indigenous people from the Kuruaia and Xipaia tribes protest against Belo Monte on June 13 in Santo Antonio. Near Altamira, the town will be expropriated for the dam's construction. Around 60 families originally lived in Santo Antonio, but now only about 10 families remain. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. These men were among the protesters at Santo Antonio on June 13. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dam opponents breach an earthen dam on the Xingu on June 15 as part of their symbolic takeover. (Atossa Soltani / Amazon Watch via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Opponents celebrate on June 15 after having breached the earthen dam near Altamira. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A girl waits at Santo Antonio's church on June 13 for the start of the protest there. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Tribesmen rest on June 13 ahead of the protest in Santo Antonio. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A stretch of the Xingu River near the dam site is seen on June 15.

    "Most of the river’s flow will be detoured from the main reservoir through a series of canals interlinking five dammed tributary streams," wrote Fearnside, "leaving the 'Big Bend' of the Xingu River below the dam with only a tiny fraction of its normal annual flow." (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Tire tracks on June 15 reflect an area cleared for construction of the dam near Altamira. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Hundreds used Rio de Janeiro's Flamengo Beach as a canvas on June 19 to protest the dam and urge "Rivers for life". The rally was led by an association of indigenous peoples. (Spectral Q / Chico / Paulo) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Supplies are shipped along the Xingu River on June 14. Delivery men like these are among those seeing more work from the dam project. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Farmer Joao Volveriso poses on June 17 at the Altamira market where he sells produce. Many farmers are among those being forced to relocate, and it's not clear yet whether they'll win or lose with the dam. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Altamira has grown as Brazilians made their way into the Amazon, clearing rainforest to do so. It's still largely ramshackle, as this commercial street on June 17 attests, but 130,000 people call it home. A quarter of the city will be flooded by the dam project. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Signs that Altamira has matured as a city include these music students practicing in the streets on June 14. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. This tributary to the Xingu is a playground for Altamira residents, including this high-flying young man on June 16. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. The first stage of Belo Monte's construction is seen on May 30. The dam should start producing electricity in 2015 and will be the third largest in the world when it does. (Evaristo Sa / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. This area, seen on May 30, is also part of the dam's first stage of construction. (Evaristo Sa / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. This bar along the Xingu, seen on June 14, is among the Altamira properties that will be flooded by the dam's reservoir. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. There's no question that locals -- including these Altamira residents enjoying the water on June 16 -- see the Xingu as a river with assets. The question dividing folks is what kind should be exploited -- a dam that provides jobs and electricity, or a naturally flowing river that generations have fished on and lived from. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Brazil's Controversial Belo Monte Dam Project To Displace Thousands in Amazon
    Mario Tama / Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (31) Dams rising across Brazil's Amazon
  2. Image: Brazil Faces Environmental Challenges in Amazon Ahead of Rio Earth Summit
    Mario Tama / Getty Images
    Slideshow (16) Brazil’s balancing act

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