Open (Prison) Doors

 

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Photo taken in different prison and different time from the story below.

A recent post on one of my favorite blogs Inmate Blogger reminded me of an interesting story I would like to share with you.  The Inmate Blogger post provided important prison quotes/verses and asked its readers to share others with its audience.  Here is my favorite quote taken from one of the prisoners I met with last year and I shared via a comment on the post.

We were finishing up one of our religious visits to a Sao Paulo prison in the north of the city.  This particular prison is extremely overcrowded with 30-50 prisoners in cells meant for 10-15.  All the doors of the cells open to a large football field-sized courtyard where the prisoners can congregate and exercise outside of their cells. Unfortunately, the cell doors (of bars) are only open for roughly 10 minutes in the morning to let the prisoners out.  If the men do not leave their cells during this “open period,” the cell doors close again quickly and they are locked in their cells for the rest of the morning.  So roughly half of the men, those who left their cells during the “open period,” are in the prison courtyard while the others are locked in their cells.

We spent about an hour in the cellblock reading the Gospel, reflecting on its powerful message and praying with the men in the courtyard and any others locked in their cell who could watch and listen to the liturgy through the cell bars.  As we were making our way to the exit after our visit, one of the prisoners who we were praying and visiting with, looked at me with his eyes firmly planted on mine and said, “Thank you for coming. Our doors are always open for you.”

Wow!  I was immediately stunned and noted the irony.  Here is a man locked up everyday for most of his 24 hours and he was telling me his doors were always open to us.  I thanked him for the very warm response to our visit and shook his hand before the guards closed the cellblock doors behind us.

Its hard to describe the hospitality and welcome we receive when we make our visits to the prisons, but this one quote is still the most beautiful thing any prisoner has ever said to me.

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Depression by Fifi

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(This is the 7th in a series of refections by women prisoners in Brazil and the third by Fifi.  In this reflection, Fifi shares her feelings on depression and more importantly how she can help others with their own depression.  Please think about and pray for the author “Fifi” and all the depressed women in São Paulo’s prisons.  Fifi has given her permission to share her reflection via this blog post although her name has been changed.

If you are inspired to comment on Fifi’s reflections, please add a supportive note in the comment section below and I will ensure she gets your comment.  

What is depression?  I have no idea but I experience it with a lot of “ups and downs.”

One moment I am happy and the next moment angry…and sad.  There are many feelings of pressure on both my body and mind; sadness, anger, frustration, happiness, disappointment…all in my mind as well.

The only way to handle it is to find a way to stay calm and talk to somebody.  Other ways to stay calm are by writing and coloring.  Everyone has their own way. And a lot of people (in prison) don’t dare to come out of their depression, because there is no need.

Also, here you can come out from your depression, but it takes some time.  And once you are out of it, and you are your “old self” again, you can be proud of yourself.  And you must be stronger!

So I want to tell everyone who has the same depression, “Don’t be ashamed of yourself.  You are not alone.”

I wannna ask those people to write something about their depression and their experience so we can share together and (work) to achieve to be better in life.

The Loss of a Loved One by Fifi

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(Tiago’s note–This is the sixth in a series of refections by women prisoners in Brazil and the second by Fifi.  The women have given their permission for this blog post although their names have been changed.  In this reflection, Fifi shares the feeling of loss after losing her one-week old son shortly before coming to prison.  Please think about and pray for the author “Fifi” and her angel.  Pray for the thousands of women in prisons who also desperately miss their loved ones.)

When you lose a loved one, it is very painful.  It is like they take a piece away from your life.  For some, its easier to get over than another; everyone is different.  The pain will never go away, but you will learn to live with and handle it.

The moment the person you lose is going to heaven, it is better but still very painful for the loved ones left behind.  Everybody handles the grieving process differently.

In your mind, you know its better that your loved one has gone to heaven, but in your heart you want something else.  Your loved one has no more pain and can be happy in heaven; away from your life they are actually nearer.  I know that I will always have the new angel with me and he will watch over me.

Christmas Masses in São Paulo Prisons

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We had a wonderful 2017 Christmas season serving in the prisons of São Paulo.  Maryknoll Lay Missioners participated in at least 14 Christmas-style masses during Advent.  For most of the men and women we meet in the Brazilian prisons, these celebration are the only mass and eucharist they will have all year.  There are not enough priests to have regular mass in the over 25 different cellblocks we are allowed to visit.

Normally, the masses are held in the small prison cells.  It is crowded, noisy, and very hot.  However, the masses were very well attended and extremely joyful as it gives the prisoners some time to reflect on the meaning of Advent and Christmas; prepare not only for another year in their very dark place, but more importantly, prepare for life on the outside.

At the end of each mass, we would sing O Come All Ye Faithful in English for them.  One of the priests we regularly visit is Italian and he loves to sing this song with us.  The prisoners’ eyes would light up at the sound of our off-key voices; they love hearing the English language.  It was especially meaningful when they joined us in singing the final Latin versus of “Venite Adoremus, Venite Adoremu, Venite Adoremu, Dominum”

We then asked them to sing a Brazilian Christmas song for us.  Normally it was Noite Feliz (Silent Night).  Here are the lyrics:

Noite feliz, noite feliz
Ó senhor, Deus de amor
Pobrezinho nasceu em Belém
Eis na lapa Jesus, nosso bem
Dorme em paz, ó Jesus
Dorme em paz, ó Jesus

Noite feliz, noite feliz
Ó Jesus, deus da luz
Quão afável é teu coração
Que quiseste nascer nosso irmão
E a nós todos salvar
E a nós todos salvar

Noite feliz, noite feliz
Eis que no ar vem cantar
Aos pastores, seus anjos no céu
Anunciando a chegada de Deus
De Jesus salvador
De Jesus salvador

Please continue to reflect and pray for the incarcerated who struggle mightily during these important religious seasons.

A Place for Us by Fifi

(Tiago’s note–This is the fifth in a series of refections by women prisoners in Brazil.  The women have given their permission for this blog post although their names have been changed. 

In this reflection, Fifi shares the feeling she has being incarcerated shortly after losing her one-week old son.  Please think about and pray for the deceased child, the author “Fifi” and the other women in prisons throughout the world.  Let’s ask Him to provide them with the strength to carry on in these dark places.)

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To be a human is to feel pain, sadness, happiness, and love. But for me, feeling like a human sucks.

If I could go to heaven, I would tell my son how much I love him, I miss him, and ask him how he is doing.  I would ask him if he is happy and if he is proud of me for doing everything I could do until his last breath.

I also wanna tell him how proud I am of him, how he fought for his life, but it was not meant to be, to be a (long) life.

Then I want to come back to earth and live a life like a normal human being.  This is what it feels like to be a human right now for me.

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

Anxious Parents

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“Hello, thank you for your message, when you are in touch and see “my daughter”, I feel calmer.”

Sometimes, I believe, the families of the foreign women we meet in their prison have it the hardest.

Please pray for the anxious parents.