Unsolicited, he proudly explained to me, “We only have black cats in this prison.” As we both looked around I realized he was right. All I could see were black cats. He did not stay long enough to explain why they only had black cats and when I searched for him again, he was gone. He had disappeared into a sea of male prisoners dressed in their light brown pants and white t-shirts wandering aimlessly in the courtyard of Franco da Rocha prison just north of São Paulo, Brazil….always shaking my hand as they passed by me.
It was my first trip to this prison and I was in the middle of the large rectangular prison courtyard, about half the size of a football field and surrounded on two sides by two levels of prison cells, on another side by a large blank cement wall and the fourth, the cellblock entrance. Above the hot concrete courtyard floor was only the sun, blue sky and a thin wire net covering the entire area.
Everywhere I looked there was something interesting happening…at least interesting to me. There was a group of prisoners walking in a large circle for their daily exercise, there was a group sitting in a circle around another prisoner with an old guitar singing, there was an individual walking around with several cartons of cigarettes. But mostly, the 1000 or so men were just standing around talking to each other.
As I searched for the next victim of my broken Portuguese, a rosary, and a prayer card, I noticed the most interesting thing yet. There were several groups of about 10 or so men standing around white plastic buckets washing the black cats. Now not being a cat person, I never knew that cats needed to be washed; especially in the way they were being washed.
This cat washing procedure took at least five men to perform. There were three men holding the cats by the scruff of the neck, the front paws, and the back paws as they dunked the cat into the white plastic bucket filled with soapy water. One man would then pour some sort of green dish-washing liquid soap on the cat. And the last man would scrub and lather up the the cat after the dunking. There were at least five other men standing around in a circle while they watched their sport of cat-washing.
As I moved in closer to the action, I learned something new about cats; they really don’t like to be cleaned using this particular washing method. This angry black cat was hissing and baring its fangs at the prisoner holding its neck…and the prisoner was holding on for dear life…the only one of the group not giggling! The cat washing lasted about ten minutes–squirt, scrub, dunk and then again squirt, scrub, dunk. The whole time the cat hissing and baring its teeth at the neck holder.
Finally, after the cat was cleaned, rinsed and looking like something out of a Stephan King horror movie, the men counted to three and let go of the cat all at once. The cat darted away into a corner of the courtyard where it could clean itself in a way it was accustomed too and dry off in the hot Brazilian sun. The men then began looking around for another cat to wash.
Because there were several groups of cat-washers spread out in the courtyard, I never quite figured out if this was just an occasional cat washing day or this was something they did more regularly to pass the time of dreadfully boring prison life. But i sensed it was something more than entertainment for the men. It seemed like these men felt the need to take care of another living being even if it meant only washing the black cats; their black cats. Most of the men were probably fathers and missed the chance to care for their children and families. In some peculiar way, I sensed the cat washing provided them with that feeling again.
So next time your cat needs washing, please remember and pray for the men of Franco da Rocha prison and their human desire to take care of another living creature. Pray that they can finish their sentences in a quick and just way before returning to their children and families to take care of them instead of the black cats.
Thanks for listening… Abraços, Tiago