Brazilian prisons see different responses to COVID-19

Brazil’s number of COVID cases reached 3,997,865 in September, with over three percent of those cases resulting in death. A significant portion of those cases are coming from Brazil’s prison system which houses about 773,000 inmates, where almost 4% of inmates had been infected (over double the infection rate of the general population). The overcrowded prisons make it difficult to maintain social distancing precautions, where violence and riots are known to break out. After doors were closed to visitors and Easter break was postponed, inmates staged riots at four Sao Paulo semi-open regime prisons, with over 400 of them escaping into the streets.

Things are faring differently within Brazil’s APAC (Association for Protecting and Assisting Convicts) prison system. Only 15 out of their 40,000 total inmates were infected, and none have attempted to escape. What is it about this prison that makes inmates want to stay? APAC’s Director of International Relations Denio Marx Menezes recalled an inmate who escaped from six prisons before entering APAC, who was once asked why he didn’t attempt to escape anymore. “Do amor niguem foge,” he replied. Nobody flees from love.

Whereas most prisons look to punish criminals, APAC looks to punish but also to help them recover. “We try to teach them as God teaches us: with love,” said Menezes. His words echo the vision of APAC’s founder Mario Ottoboni, who once said that criminals “are not dangerous people. They are only people who are not sufficiently loved.”

 

Menezes continued, “we help them to acknowledge that they chose to commit a crime, and how doing that harms society. But we also give them the tools to make amends and to choose to do good for others.” The recovery program is based on a model of restorative justice, aiming to help inmates reconcile with the particular people who were hurt by their negative actions. “All of this is impossible without knowing the story of each individual inmate. Prisoner workers and volunteers take the time to learn each person’s history.”

Inmates follow a 12 step program and a strict daily schedule. “You are not permitted to do nothing...they are always doing something.” From cleaning cells to cooking, gardening and taking classes, praying and playing sports, the inmates are always occupied from when they wake up at 6:30 am to lights out at 10 pm. Menezes believes that all of these daily tasks help to “rescue the dignity of the person”--especially cleaning. “This place is always spotless...everything is so clean.” As one of the most well-known APAC slogans puts it, “here enters the man, the crime stays outside.”  Maintaining a clean and beautiful environment is essential to maintaining the inmates’ sense of dignity and humanity. 

“It’s not easy being in APAC. The daily schedule is demanding. The inmates need to learn to receive the word ‘no’--they’re used to having no limits. You can’t do whatever you want here. There are rules--but they can tell the difference between rules motivated by love and rules motivated by power. And they know that they’re not alone. We walk together with them so it’s easier to get through it.”

The presence of volunteers who freely choose to spend their time accompanying the inmates is essential to fostering this environment of love. Thus the onset of the Coronavirus in Brazil was especially painful for the inmates at APAC. They could receive no more volunteers nor visits from family. Having to maintain social distancing required them to modify their daily routine. But with a generous donation from the EU, APAC was able to purchase materials for the inmates to start masking face masks to be distributed around the world. “The inmates have been sad with everything going on, but making the masks made them excited. It was a way for them to help society and offer something good. It was a chance for them to say to society, ‘see, we aren’t just criminals. We are useful for something.’ It’s amazing how such a simple gesture can rescue the dignity of the person.”