After a two-month wait for my prison visit ID cards from the São Paolo government, I made my first visit to a Brazilian prison; Penitenciaria Feminina da Capital (PFC). This women’s prison, in the middle of Sao Paulo, houses foreign women who are mostly in jail on drug trafficking charges and convictions. Some are waiting on their trials, some are awaiting sentencing, and the most are paying back their debt to society. It was a daunting but eye-opening experience all at the same time and one I would like to share with you.
We first went through security where we had to leave most of our belongs, including our watches, mobile phones, cash and bags behind. We were then searched for illegal contraband. The security procedures were pretty tight but we were able to bring in Bibles, plain envelopes, notepads without writing, and pens. The guards look through every piece of paper you bring into the prison.
After security, our team of about eight Catholic missioners said a prayer under a small tree and split up among the three different buildings. My Irish priest partner, Father Geraldo, told me he had some favorite prisoners to attend to and as we walked into the concrete courtyard he said “You are on your own now.”
I looked around at the woman and they stared me down. The yard was lined with a 30-foot high wall with a lone-guard standing on top of the wall patrolling with a gun. The 30-40 woman, all dressed in the same white t-shirts and khaki shorts, had the day off from work and were doing laundry, walking around the yard, or sitting on concrete benches in the shade. There were also two young Russian girls doing Yoga at the other end of the yard by doing head-stands.
I was fairly nervous without really knowing how to approach the woman so I just sat down next to a couple and starting chatting. Because this is foreigner’s prison, many of the woman speak English. I met woman from South Africa, Malaysia, Canada, Cape Verde, Angola, and the Philippines. As we chatted, they started to open up to me. They were very happy to tell me their stories; stories about their convictions, stories about their incarceration, and mostly stories about their families on the outside. Some even asked me to send email messages to their children and husbands.
Unfortunately, these woman are all on the bottom rung of the drug smuggling ladder and paying the price for the big drug-trading of others. Most were naive in thinking they were going to Brazil in hopes of finding work to support their families back home but ended up conned into smuggling drugs, eventually caught, and sentenced 6-7 years in PFC.
The sun started setting and the woman started to get more anxious because they knew their time in the courtyards would soon be ending and they would be sent back to their cells. Without watches, I asked one how they knew what time it was. She did not answer me and it was easy to sense what her response would have been if she had.
After about two hours of sitting and talking, we were asked to leave the prison. Before we walked out of the yard the woman gave me a hug and kept asking me when I would return. They also asked me to bring English Bibles, English-language magazines, and writing tools.
Their names were Emelda, Elizabeth, Samantha, Ginalean and Daniella. Please pray for them!
It was an amazing experience and after a long orientation process with Maryknoll Lay Missioners, I am beginning to feel like a true missioner. Can’t provide any pictures but I hope to share some of these stories with you as we continue our mission journey.