In a country like Brazil, where prison conditions are amongst the worst in the world, where corruption and violence are the order of the day, the alternative experience of detention, called APAC (Association for the Protection and Assistance of the Detained), is becoming the alternative method for the rehabilitation of prisoners by considering them as persons and not criminals. Emma Chiolini, a young Comboni Lay Missionary, has lived for three years in the outskirts of Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais State. As a missionary in prison chaplaincy, she tells us of her experience.
Almost all the prison population of Brazil comes from life situations where the fabric of family and social life is fragile. The task of the prison chaplaincy is to accompany the prisoners both from the spiritual and the human point of view, reporting situations where dignity is not respected or where systems are based more on violence than on re-education. All the prisoners whom I came to know, along with their families, have been deeply wounded by violence, want and poverty.
If one has never experienced love, how can they find it in a cell where there is only hate and revenge? How can a person be re-educated in a power struggle that oppresses, brands and kills? It is also true that some prisons are out and out schools of crime where violence is controlled by criminal organisations that give the orders in the prison wings and carry on their business. Institutionalised corruption is part of the prison system.
A person is reclaimed when someone loves them, when someone teaches them to learn how to forgive and forgive themselves. The most beautiful example of this, which I keep like a precious treasure in my heart, is that of an elderly lady who used to visit a prisoner, always bringing something to eat. One day, one of the guards praised the work of that woman and asked her what good things she was bringing to her son.
She replied that she wasn’t visiting her son but the man who killed him: that woman had forgiven the man who took away the one to whom she gave birth. She had come to know the personal story of that man, so similar to that of her own son and she had forgiven him, binding up the wound of her sorrow with love and helping him to know the meaning of love through forgiveness and loving care. That prisoner changed, transforming the tears of sorrow he held back in the embraces of that mother who accepted him as he was, into tears of peace and serenity at his resurrection that caused him to be reborn since, ‘There is no escape from love’.
This is also true of the foundation of the Association for the Protection of Prisoners (APAC), an experience that shows how a prison that is more human, dignified and respectful is possible. APAC organisations are distinguished by the Christian methodology that aims at recuperating the prisoner as person and not as a criminal. The inscription one reads at the entrance to the APAC prisons is: ‘Here people enter; crimes stay outside’. Here, in fact, the person is considered more important that his mistakes, capable of changing; he is given another chance that springs from the recognition of the person and his value. Life in these prisons is marked by discipline, work and prayer.
There are no policemen or weapons; the one being rehabilitated, called a ‘recuperand’, the name given to the prisoner, helps and teaches the others by means of reciprocal interaction made up of responsibility and discipline. The ones in rehabilitation hold the keys to the doors of the cells and, through the work of the volunteers, are accompanied in processes called ‘reality therapy’.
Generally, prisoners do not feel a sense of guilt and seek a scapegoat to justify their actions: if they stole, they say, ‘but everybody steals’; if they were selling drugs, they say, ‘because the others want to buy them’; if they killed someone, they say, ‘it was self-defence. I would have been killed myself’.
The ‘reality therapy’, instead, makes each ‘recuperand’ face up to his crimes, not in such a way that the crime becomes a burden, but helping to separate the person from the crime, in the hope that he may change. This is the starting point of a human and spiritual process made up of pain, work, commitment, constancy and discipline that leads to nothing less than personal resurrection.
Between 70% and 80% of prisoners in Brazilian prisons reoffend; in the APAC, only 15% re-offend.
Another basic element is the involvement of society through volunteers, the families themselves of the ‘recuperands’ and the associations of the territory, in a commitment that creates and maintains the APAC. Here, in a sense, one feels ‘at home’, forgetting that one is in a prison, were it not for the cells and the doors that are kept locked and the striking and penetrating stories of the people who live there. And you, as a volunteer, take all these stories on yourself to help share the burden and walk ‘home’ together to that interior home that brings rebirth and a path of hope.