Roberto da Silva

This description of Roberto da Silva's work was prepared when Roberto da Silva was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.


Building on his personal, educational, and professional experience with the Brazilian penitentiary system, Roberto da Silva is implementing a comprehensive system for community co-management of prisons that provides citizen institutions with the technical training and partnerships necessary to turn these centers of violence into productive rehabilitation institutions.

The New Idea

Roberto has a new vision for creating a community-based prison system, geared at rehabilitating prisoners by minimizing their alienation and dislocation from their families and their community. To meet the growing need for prisons in Brazil and to create engaged and active citizens rather than ex-convicts, Roberto is proposing a viable alternative to large and remote prison institutions. In Roberto's new model, prisoners serve their entire sentences in new or redesigned medium-sized facilities (with up to five hundred prisoners). This model maintains family and social ties. The facilities are run by community-based organizations that act as service providers for the state, which provides basic subsistence for the prisoners. Prisoners are employed by businesses, enabling them to provide income for their families, save wages for their future release, and contribute to the costs of prison services like professional training and education programs. Social and behavioral norms are set by an elected group of prisoners, reinforcing citizenship responsibility. Roberto's idea goes substantially beyond earlier models of community involvement. His design for facilities creates a management structure for prisons that reinforces the prisoner's rehabilitation and the community's commitment to that rehabilitation. To implement his idea, Roberto has created a methodology to identify, train, and professionalize citizen organizations to manage community-based prison facilities. He provides them with concrete skills in management and public administration, reinforced by a network of technical partners and government agencies to make community management of prisons a viable and effective option for improving the current situation of violence and corruption in Brazilian prisons.

The Problem

The typical Brazilian prisoner has little or no education, professional training, social security (such as a regular salary), unemployment insurance, educational stipends for his or her children, or parental leave. One-third of the incarcerated adult population has been through government institutions such as FEBEM (Federal Department for the Welfare of Minors). Imprisonment sets the prisoner onto a spiral of crime reflected in the high rate of recidivism in Brazil. The government's inability to effectively serve marginalized populations and rehabilitate criminals is illustrated further by the fact that the government spends approximately four hundred dollars per month per prisoner with one employee per 2.96 prisoners. However, approximately 250,000 prison sentences are never completed and there are around three hundred escapes per year. The rate of recidivism in Brazil is officially recognized as 46 percent although some estimates place this figure as high as 70 percent. These indicators are largely due to corruption and misallocated resources. Only 2 percent of the incarcerated population has regular, salaried work. Thirty percent receive infrequent payment for temporary labor for private companies, and the rest remain unproductive with no means to provide for their families or invest in their future. Education services for prisoners, where offered, have proven ineffective largely due to the varying levels of education and age among prisoners. As a result, the majority of prisoners, even those with twenty years of incarceration, never advance even one school grade level. Legal, medical, and social services, which the state is obligated to provide, are insufficient due to the instability of the system. Penitentiary system social services reach only 1 percent of the prisoners released each month. In São Paulo there is only one private entity that offers assistance to the children of prisoners. The prisoners' families do not receive any type of public assistance, nor are there any procedures in place to prepare a released prisoner to return to a productive life in society. Society continues to perceive prisons as "universities of crime." Despite the increase in punishment and measures to contain criminals, the prisoner leaves worse off than when he entered. Eighty-five percent of the prisons in Brazil are medium-sized prisons with five hundred or fewer prisoners. In São Paulo state alone, there are fifty prisons of this size. They house eighty-five thousand prisoners, 96 percent of whom are men. The state is now facing an influx of prisoners with a net increase in the prison population of eight hundred inmates per month.

The Strategy

The state of São Paulo needs to build new facilities and create long-term solutions for curbing the incarceration rate. Within this context, Roberto is implementing his vision of community-based prisons by working with the state to design facilities that will address both of these concerns. As a first step, Roberto formed a partnership with the State Secretary of Penitentiary Administration, resulting in the development of the Citizen Prison Project to construct citizen-managed prisons in which the state provides infrastructure, food, and security. Each new facility will house up to five hundred prisoners from within the community where it is located. There will be seventy employees at each site, of which only thirteen will be state employees. The state will cover basic security and transport services, and the citizen organization will provide management services. Within the prison, the citizen group will manage all services from food to education. The physical design of the prison will reflect the vision of citizenship-building as opposed to incarceration. The new or renovated facilities are to be small in size and without cells. There will be an association of prisoners to run the internal operation, spaces for family interaction, and internal verification mechanisms for both the prisoners and their families to monitor the services provided by the managing civil organization. Each facility will also set up businesses to produce goods for the federal prison bureau, in order to generate income for the prisoners and to offset facility-management costs. Twenty-five percent of the profits from production go to the managing nonprofit to cover administrative and program development costs in the prison. Of the remaining 75 percent of the profits, 25 percent go to the participating prisoners for discretionary use, 25 percent go to the families of the prisoners, and 25 percent is saved for the prisoner to use upon release. Roberto's organization, História do Presente (Present History), is responsible for identifying, training, and supporting the citizen organizations which will implement his design. Roberto identified seventy organizations working with prisoners in São Paulo. Roberto and his team then evaluated the stage of development of each organization and created a document synthesizing their specific institutional needs. Roberto brought these organizations together to discuss the proposed Prison Citizenship Project within the State Secretariat of Penitentiary Administration and identified sixteen citizen organizations which will receive technical and operational support in order to begin to manage sixteen prisons throughout São Paulo State, initially affecting 3,360 prisoners directly. Roberto's model for training the organizations aims to standardize and elevate the services being provided. Each citizen organization must meet the same high standards of documentation, work methodology, prisoner services, and training for prison employees. To achieve this, Roberto's technical team works with each organization to comply with the following steps: 1) legalizing the organization if not yet done; 2) developing an organizational profile identifying the members and volunteers involved; 3) creating an administrative system focusing on accountability and transparency; 4) providing technical training to the organization's team, focusing on the areas of strategic planning, sustainability, resource allocation, and especially orientation on the penitentiary system; and 5) signing a formal agreement with the state government on the management of the prison in question. Roberto brings the sixteen organizations together for periodic meetings, courses, and workshops reinforced by visits to each of the municipalities. Due to the distance among these organizations, Roberto has also created support materials including: 1) videos explaining the above processes step-by-step; 2) an orientation manual, in print and on the Internet, with a scientific study on the penitentiary system, including sections on prison architecture, organizing prisoners and their families, rules of security and discipline, budgeting norms and financial accounting, and human resource management; 3) Internet tools such as forums and listserves to facilitate the exchange of ideas and experiences among the organizations; and 4) administrative software, which was created as a tool for efficient management of the organization and the prison facility. All of the training and technical support for the citizen organizations aims to promote decision-making power among the prisoners, through the implementation of prisoner commissions, so they can design and carry out their own rehabilitation in conjunction with the community.Once the Citizen Prison Project has been installed in the sixteen prisons in São Paulo, Roberto plans to spread his approach to the rest of the prisons in the state, according to the government time frame for constructing new facilities.

The Person

After being separated from his parents, Roberto, along with three siblings, became a ward of the state-run FEBEM in São Paulo until the age of seventeen. He grew up without knowing his mother's or siblings' whereabouts. The rigid and impersonal system treated him as an object rather than a person, shuffling him among orphanages and detention centers. After leaving FEBEM, he ended up on the streets of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte, confronted by drugs, alcohol, and delinquency. Without other means, he committed petty crime to survive and was subjected to the brutality and arbitrariness of police repression of street youth.At nineteen, Roberto was arrested and sentenced to eighteen years in prison where he came across many young men who, from the ages of one to four, had been raised alongside him in the state FEBEM system. Roberto found that the majority had stories similar to his own. At age sixteen he had a bitter revelation while working in the archives of the Justice Center for Minors during his time in FEBEM. He learned that the state authorities had known the whereabouts of his family all along and had kept this information from him. His mother had not abandoned him. Roberto and his siblings had been taken away from her when she was temporarily committed to a psychiatric hospital for acute emotional stress brought on by economic problems. With the objective of helping "criminalized" children like himself, Roberto dedicated himself to penal law, criminology, criminal sociology, and psychology. Once out of prison, he completed a high-school equivalency course and began studying teaching at the federal university. After college, he finished his masters degree, focusing on children raised in FEBEM who ended up in prison, publishing a book, Children of the Government: The Formation of Criminal Identity in Orphaned and Abandoned Children, which won recognition from the Rotary Club of São Paulo, UNICEF, and the Baha'i Community. He later completed a doctorate in education. At this point he began using state agency archives to help prisoners locate lost family members, and he succeeded in reuniting sixty families. He even found two of his own siblings. Roberto then organized national meetings of adoption support groups and participated in studies on FEBEM and state prisons, which put him in contact with alternative models for prison reform pioneered by Ashoka Member Mario Ottoboni. In 1999, Roberto founded the organization História do Presente.