Follow the money: Brazil’s prisons generate revenue, pastoral workers say


SÃO PAULO — In Brazil, as in most countries, prison ministry involves visiting and praying with inmates, but as Brazilian prisons are increasingly treated as sources of money, ministry also means defending the rights of prisoners.

People who work in the penitentiary ministry of the Brazilian bishops can talk about the problems: lack of running water for most of the day, poor hygiene, overcrowding, insufficient and poor quality food, and lack of respect for basic human needs. , including access to health care. services.


The bishops began prison ministry 50 years ago, and German-born Sister Petra Pfaller, a member of the Missionaries of Christ who leads the program, sees money as one of the driving forces behind Brazil’s prison system. today.

“Brazilian law offers many ways for an accused to await trial outside of custody. People with money can hire lawyers and successfully avoid jail time. Poor people can’t do that,” she said.

“The Brazilian state has opted for a very repressive policy in terms of conflict resolution,” she added. “And it targets poor black youth residing in slums.”

Recent data released by the Brazilian Public Security Forum showed that almost 70% of prisoners are black. Almost half of them are young men between the ages of 18 and 29.

The fact that 30 percent of prisoners have yet to be sentenced is another sign of the “social selectivity” of the system, Sister Pfaller said.

Mass incarceration generates a lot of money, Pfaller added. In general, the state purchases food and clothing from private vendors with large sums of public money at stake. To make matters worse, in recent decades many penitentiaries have been built and run by private companies, which are paid according to the number of detainees.

Mayra Balan, attorney for the Department of Prisons, said Catholic Press Service“Privatization has turned the masses of lawbreakers into commodities. There is continued pressure to expand this system. In states like Minas Gerais, for example, the proportion of private prisons is already high.

“In the case of privatized penitentiaries, no one wants to take responsibility for these problems. The state blames the corporation and the corporation blames the state. The inmates end up being the ones who suffer,” Balan said.

Things can be even worse in women’s prisons, she added. Most female prisoners are arrested for drug-related offenses – they usually get involved in such activities because of their partners.

Disorders related to depression and anxiety are common. Balan said the penal system deals with these issues by caring for female prisoners.

“They are ‘controlled’ with psychotropics. When they come out of prison, they continue to be addicted to these drugs,” she said.

Karine Vieira, 40, experienced the harsh reality of the Brazilian penal system in 2005 when, at 23, she was imprisoned for drug trafficking.

“In prison, you are no longer a human being. You become a number. You suffer psychological and moral violence on a daily basis,” she said. CNS.

Vieira had close ties to the criminals, so she managed to get better prison conditions – her cell had ‘only’ 24 inmates for 12 beds, and she could afford to buy and cook her own food.

“But we were humiliated every day. The guards inspected our cell and threw soap in our food, for example,” she recalls.

Once, Vieira had to be hospitalized due to respiratory problems. “It was a devastating experience. I was treated with outrage throughout the process,” she said.

Vieira was eventually found not guilty due to legal inconsistencies in her case and left prison after six months.

Today, she runs Instituto Responsa, a nongovernmental organization that helps educate people released from prison and introduces them to companies that can hire them.

Divine Word Father Patrício Brennan, who has worked since 2015 with the prison ministry in Altamira, said that after a 2019 riot that left 62 people dead, new prisons were built to reduce overcrowding.

In Manaus, where more than 100 inmates were killed in riots in 2017 and 2019, all prisons have been privatized, and violence is rampant.

“A boy steals a cell phone and goes straight to jail. There he will be submitted to the commanders (criminals). Things can only get worse like this,” said Maria Nazaré Saraiva Alcântara, Prisons Ministry Coordinator in the Archdiocese of Manaus.

The gangs control the prisons. Newly arrived inmates usually have to join gangs, which leads to greater involvement in criminal activity.

“For the system, everything is fine. Prison companies get more money if there are more people in prison. Perhaps that is why mass incarceration is getting worse,” Alcântara said.

Pfaller said since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, violence has increased in the penal system. A former army captain, Bolsonaro has been a supporter of violent police action against criminals – and his rhetoric and actions have led to further militarization of prisons, she said.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, when visitors – and pastoral workers – were barred from entering prisons, reports of torture increased exponentially,” she added.

Despite the escalation of these long-standing problems with Brazil’s prison system, Father Valdir Joao Silveira, Pfaller’s predecessor as head of the prisons ministry, said the ministry managed to “avoid even greater injustices. .. over the last 50 years”.

“The Ministry of Penitentiary Pastoral has fought for the creation of several laws which concretely lighten the penal system in the country. We have also fought against torture in prisons and helped establish the official body that fights it in Brazil,” he said.

The priest said the ministry was behind the establishment of public defender offices in several parts of the country. He also promoted an agenda against mass incarceration, bringing together several social movements in a broad alliance.

“We have always faced many difficulties,” he said, noting that even some Catholics are wary of those who deal with prisoners.

“We don’t have the necessary structure to work. But we have always fought for the people. I’m sure if it wasn’t for us things would be much worse,” Silveira said.

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