Lost in Translation

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We usually get the notification in a WhatsApp group text message the morning of our Saturday visits;  Unfortunately, one more woman at Feminine Prison of Santana (PFS) has committed suicide.  This week it was the fifth suicide within the last two months.

Normally when we arrive after a suicide our team leader, Eliana, explains the few facts that she knows about the situation.  With my limited Portuguese capability I don’t catch all she knows but when I look around at Eliana and at the rest of our Prison Pastoral group, I always see the deep pain in everyone’s heart.  It often brings them to tears as we gather in the courtyard outside of the prison and pray for the women in PFS.  We hold each other’s hands reassuring each other that our work will make a small difference.

It personally jarred me this week when Eliana said the suicide occurred in the one (of six) pavilion where I make my visits.  I thought of the five or six women I normally visit with and selfishly hoped it was not one of them.  Eliana accompanied me and my partner Gianfranco to our pavilion in an effort to meet and talk to the woman inside. I breathed a sigh of relief as we entered the prison yard and accounted for all of “our girls.” They were waiting for us.

We set our small green stools down in a circle under the shade of the tall prison wall and invited the women over to the sit with us.  After our normal abraçoes (hugs) and warm greetings, the woman explained the latest suicide was by a girl named Michelli.  They did not know her very well because she was the kind of woman that kept mostly to herself but everyone knew of the occurrence and were very troubled.  Eliana did a marvelous job of talking them through the event and gently pushing them to help us understand why these woman take their own life.

Their only attempt at explanation was that the suicidal women lose all their hope and will to live while trying to survive in such a dark place.  They are never alone in prison, however they are always isolated; isolated from friends and family, isolated from the real world, and most important isolated from the their children.  Most of the woman we meet with are mothers.

As we talked about suicide and ways the woman can support each other in an effort to stop this epidemic I was reminded of my Air Force Suicide Prevention training and asked one woman, Andrea, if the prison administration helps them through these difficult situations.  She just said “Nao” and looked away.

We finished with our short liturgical celebration and prayed together; standing together in a circle, arm in arm, as we asked for their personal petitions before saying the Our Father and Hail Mary.  The woman were very happy to have the presence of the Prison Pastoral on that day and explained how they viewed us as their family.  One of the woman pulled out the postcard from Munich I had sent her while I was attending our family reunion.  It was a picture of Marienplatz and she said she cried when she received it because even her family does not send her letters.

They walked us to the barred prison door and we exchanged more abraçoes before the guard closed the door behind us after we crossed back through.  As we walked away, three of the girls were still watching and waving to us through the prison bars and I asked God to make it a long time before the next WhatsApp text notification.

Please pray for the women of Santana and especially Michelli

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