My Time Inside

During Voel’s Mozaiko workshops, I expressed my interest in finding out about social innovation work in Belo Horizonte. Members of the Minas, Belo Horizonte government invited me to visit the Complexo Penitencia Rio de Ponte Nova jail, to look at rehabilitation projects being developed by their Policy Lab. My initial thought was: I know I learn best when outside my comfort zone, and this looked like a big opportunity to go waaaay outside that comfort zone!

I was most interested in learning about the project from the prisoners’ point of view, and the representative of the Policy Lab really helped me to do this by asking questions for me in Portuguese so I could communicate with the prisoners. To really understand the context of the work I wanted to speak to everyone involved, so I also spoke with the guards and the director of the jail.

On arrival at Rio de Ponte Nova, we met with prisoners just outside the jail where they were part of the rehabilitation initiatives Movimento Minas ( by planting trees. There was a lot of interest from local press during our visit, as it was a great opportunity for the government to share the new direction of their public policy and its connection with design thinking, which they more often referred to as ‘engagement’ and ‘co-participation’.

There were about 850 prisoners in the Rio de Ponte Nova jail, male and female but in separate sections. In the UK we tend to have single sex prisons, young offenders prisons, and prisons with different levels of security for different types of offenders – I have learned that it is similar in Brazil, but here prisoners who have not yet been sentenced stay in separate prisons to those who have received sentence.

My first impression of the prisoners on meeting them during the tree planting was that many were shy and very withdrawn, lacking the energy I have come to associate with Brazilians – although there were some who could be very communicative (although I couldn’t understand their Portugese). When talking to the prisoners who were working with the trees, they were very happy at being part of the new initiative. One individual told me ‘I’ve destroyed a lot of lives, it’s good to be creating life’. The general opinion in this group was that they were really happy, and I believe what was most important to them was learning new skills and teaching them to other people.

We moved inside the jail to continue our tour, and saw prisoners making raincoats, and also furniture and birdcages using old damaged wood. The prisoners make a salary from their work on such projects, and these initiatives were partnered with commercial businesses in Belo Horizonte. The birdcages were a very successful product in the area, and I also tried on one of their raincoats that the female prisoners were making:

Another initiative was a seed-banking program to protect endangered species of plants and trees being run by the prisoners.

Over lunch I had the opportunity to talk to the director of the prison, to find out what some of their main problems were. The main issue was that the justice system takes a very long time to make decisions about prisoners’ sentencing and release, and also whether they are allowed outside the prison walls to participate in the rehabilitation programs, which can cause anger. The other big problem, which was reported by both the prisoners and the prison staff, was that on their release from the prison they can slowly slip back into their ‘old ways’ because friends and family see them as they were before and might not accept or understand that they have changed through participation in initiatives like the rehabilitation program.

My general sense from the visit was strange, as I actually felt safer inside the jail than when I was out on the streets of Belo Horizonte! Everyone in the prison was relaxed or busy with work, they had structure to their day and there was no tension. People were engaged in creative activities and enjoying them.

One thing I do know is that, from all the people I met on the day, trying to introduce a design thinking mindset into such a vast context with so many people involved presents a lot of barriers. For me as an outsider, I did not know what crimes these individuals had committed and my instinct was to see things from the prisoner’s perspective and have empathy for them.

The representative from the Public Policy Lab shared with me the value she sees in the design thinking mindset, as we see things from the participant’s point of view through tools like storytelling and prototyping. Once you’ve created a public policy, it’s hard to change it – so prototyping is likely to become more and more important in this field.

More and more, I am feeling that I need to move outside of design to really understand it’s value and experiences such as this really give you a mindset where you can understand things from different angles. I also feel a real need to understand public policy – I know that design thinking alone can’t change things, it needs to be linked to public policy and a network of individuals that can change things for the better.

When I visit these new and unfamiliar situations, like the large organizations I visited in Oslo as part of my work with DesignThinkers, I do feel very far removed from the people I meet. I think that it’s too easy to be judgmental in these strange situations, and the real value to be gained is in making the effort to really understand the context as much as possible.

If you’d like to find out more about Movimento Minas, check out the following information about the project:

You can also keep in touch with news about Movimento Minas through the following channels:




One comment

  1. this is so cool Emma!