With at least six big riots in Brazilian correctional facilities in the last two years, the country’s prison system—the third biggest in the world, behind only the United States and China—is a cauldron of violence and misery always threatening to boil over. The most recent occurrence, on July 29, left at least 62 detainees dead in the city of Altamira in northern Brazil; 16 of them were beheaded. In order to deal with such a barbaric system, The Prison Pastoral, a commission of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, has had to become more than a spiritual assistance provider. It has also assumed the role of an advocacy group for the rights of prisoners, a particularly unpopular role in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro.
In June 2016 (the last time the authorities released data), there were more than 720,000 inmates and the capacity for only 368,000 in the Brazilian prison system. In states like Amazonas, there are almost five times as many inmates as there are accommodations. But while overcrowding is the most visible problem, it is not the only one.
“Basically, no human right is properly guaranteed for detainees in Brazil.”
“Basically, no human right is properly guaranteed for detainees in Brazil,” said Monique Cruz, a researcher at the nongovernmental organization Justiça Global. Insufficient food and health care, a lack of water and impeded access to legal assistance are among the most common violations cited by Ms. Cruz, along with reports of widespread torture by prison staff. The right to practice religion in prison, secured by the Constitution, is reportedly violated as well.
“In the last few years, more and more restrictions began to be applied to the religious activities in prisons. But it’s worse for The Prison Pastoral because it’s the only group that denounces the terrible conditions of the system,” German-born Sister Petra Pfaller, the national coordinator of The Prison Pastoral, told America.
In correctional facilities all over the country, priests, women religious and lay Catholics of The Prison Pastoral are often not allowed to visit inmates, supposedly because of a lack of safety. “After the Compaj massacre in 2017, we weren’t allowed to enter it for eight months,” said Maria Nazaré Saraiva Alcântara, the coordinator of The Prison Pastoral in the Archdiocese of Manaus. In 2017, a riot at the Compaj prison in the city of Manaus left 56 inmates dead. This past May, another 15 detainees were killed there, along with dozens of others in other institutions in Manaus.
Priests, women religious and lay Catholics of The Prison Pastoral are often not allowed to visit inmates, supposedly because of a lack of safety.
The Prison Pastoral also has to deal with a lack of cooperation by prison staff belonging to evangelical churches and by the criminal gangs that rule daily life in prisons. The gangs are also dominated by evangelicals, said Ms. Alcântara.
Amid so much violence, there is no lack of prayers in prisons, said the Rev. Valdir Silveira, a former national coordinator of The Prison Pastoral. “Religion and sex are both forms of survival in the system. Even the most violent crime organizations are religious. But it’s a form of religiousness that reaffirms obedience,” he said. This does not help the inmates to think about their rights. “If you suffer any violence,” the thinking goes, it must be “because you’re wrong.”
The Prison Pastoral struggles not only to celebrate Mass and minister sacraments to the inmates—something that is gradually becoming more difficult—but also to instruct them about their legal rights. “To teach about laws is a way to give the prisoners the tools they can use to fight for their dignity,” said Father Silveira.
The group also tries to support the families of detainees, who frequently do not have the means to pay for a lawyer and who struggle to provide food and hygiene products to their jailed relatives, according to Sister Pfaller.
But another major concern of The Prison Pastoral is the complicity of Brazilian society in the inhumanity of the country’s correctional system. Patrick Brennan, S.V.D., an Irish-born Verbite who works with The Prison Pastoral in Altamira, remembered how a few fire tragedies caused widespread grief in Brazil in recent years and led to a call for new safety regulations—but not in prisons. In the riot of July 29, two inmates reportedly set fire to a cell block housing members of a rival faction, causing dozens of deaths.
In the riot of July 29, two inmates reportedly set fire to a cell block housing members of a rival faction, causing dozens of deaths.
“We hear people celebrating,” said Father Brennan, that there are fewer criminals now because of the riot and fire. “New massacres can occur anytime because all those deaths are rapidly forgotten and no measure is taken to solve the problems.”
Sister Pfaller explained that the prison system reproduces the enormous inequality of Brazilian society, selectively punishing young, black and poor people. “It’s a highly perverse system, and I think in the short term it will get even worse. The federal government and the states don’t have any proposal to improve the situation,” she said.
Indeed, President Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 with a platform of “zero tolerance” against criminals, a stance successfully imitated by state governors who won elections with his support. “Imprisonment is the first choice of the Brazilian system,” said Ms. Cruz. “Today, 42 percent of all detainees weren’t convicted yet. I think the terrible conditions now existing will get even worse in the near future.”
Brazil’s Prison Pastoral, pointed out Father Silveira, is one of the few organizations of its kind in the world that is not formed by chaplains who work for the state. “That’s why it’s able to do a prophetic work,” he said.
But compared to other pastoral groups in Brazil, it gets much less in donations. “Most of us are volunteers. We receive support from a few bishops, but it’s a poor pastoral. It would be easier to get funds if we worked with children or elderly people,” said Sister Pfaller.
The current mood in Brazil, even among some faithful Catholics, is not favorable to such a cause. “How will we respond when future generations ask us why we let so many people die in prisons? Things can’t keep going like this,” said Sister Pfaller.