A Brazilian prison guard walked into our prison English class on our US day of Thanksgiving and asked for Tiago. As I was the only Tiago in the room, I was a bit surprised. Marilyn and I had been teaching our students new adjectives through the story of Thanksgiving; Big Turkeys, Sweet Potatoes, Yellow Corn, Green Peas, and Round Pumpkin Pies. Now my thoughts turned back to the guard as he asked me to follow him outside the room. It turns out my good friend “Alex” was being released from the prison after 13 months and was asking for me.
The guard led me to a building near our class and I found Alex where they process prisoners in and out of the prison. He explained to me he did not have an national identification or any money. Since his home was a two-hour bus ride to the interior of Brazil, without ID or money he had no way of getting home. He asked me if we could help him return home. I was excited that he was being released and assured him that we would help him. The guards conducting the out-processing looked at me coldly and told me we could wait for Alex outside the prison.
After class, Marilyn and I waited outside the prison walls for almost two hours before Alex walked through the last gate into his own Liberdage (Freedom). Although he was wearing an ill-fitting Germany soccer jersey and old blue kakis that the prison had given him for his journey home, he had a huge smile on his face as he hugged Marilyn and me. All he had on him was a small white trash bag filled with his belonging; his Bible, personal photos and other books. While he was ecstatic to be free from prison you could also sense a sort of shock from him as we began our walk to the train station. He explained “The shock was like that first shot of Vodka.”
As we walked over the bridge that takes you to the train station, we stopped, turned around, looked at the large complex where Alex had been “staying” for 13 months and reflected on his experience. Alex was so excited and thankful when we told him the day was Thanksgiving in the US. We called it a wild coincidence for so many reasons, he called it the “Dança de Deus” or the “Dance of God”. We said a prayer, thanked God, and Alex silently promised himself and his children never to return to that place. It was an emotional moment for all of us. (The pictures on the bridge are from that moment.)
Throughout the hour-long train and metro ride to the bus station, Alex was both excited and nervous, occasionally glancing over his shoulder. Everything was brand new for him again. The hustle and bustle of commuters, the sights and sounds of city, and the smells of real food from sidewalk food vendors were all almost overwhelming but he continued to reflect the whole time we travelled. Alex explained, he “had not seen the moon in 13 months,” and could not wait to see it again. He also explained that “There are only two days when you go to prison, the day you enter and the day you leave; everything else in between is just one big blur.” We can only imagine the feelings he now has and he will always have because of this experience.
We arrived at the bus station and bought his $9 bus ticket home. We then strolled over to a small lunch counter and ordered a Cozinha and Torte de Frango for him to take along on the bus. (Both are small Brazilian pastries filled with meat.) He had been dreaming of Cozinhas for 13 months he said. We all laughed when we told him the chicken inside was really turkey!
We accompanied him to the bus gate and made sure he was able to get on the bus without the usually necessary ID. (The prison had given him a letter of permission to travel without ID). He then bordered the bus after a huge hug and was on his way home to see his mother, brother, wife and his two young daughters.
Alex is a very intelligent, deep, and spiritual person who made a mistake. We have learned so much from him in the short time we have known each other. He is so extremely grateful to the São Paulo Prison Pastoral (Pastoral Carcerária) and Maryknoll Lay Missioners for helping him survive his incarceration. He has paid his debt to society for his mistake and as a result his faith in God and the church have been strengthened. Please think about and pray for Alex as he transitions to normal life. The next few months will prove difficult for him and he is still in need of your support through prayer.
(This story and these pictures are being shared with Alex’s permission. He wanted you to know his story.)