By Anonymous

An anonymous service user writes about the conditions they experienced while in prison in Brazil.

I first came to Brazil about 30 years ago after marrying a Brazilian national in Cyprus. I have worked here as an English teacher, a translator and an editor of medical journals. When I arrived in this prison, I had to sleep on a mattress on the floor (or the beach – ‘praia’ – as they call it here). I had no place to leave my possessions, so another prisoner gave me a plastic bag which was stored under one of the bunks or hung on the wall. Every day it was necessary to roll up my mattress and store it under a bunk.

Foreign prisoners are generally held in two prisons in the state of São Paolo, this one in Itai and another near the most important international airport in the state. Itai has four wings with about 400 prisoners in each, including some Brazilian nationals. The cells have three bunks of three beds each – there’s usually nine people per cell, but in some cells, people also sleep on mattresses on the floor when ‘necessary’. 

Overcrowding is not an exception in Brazil – I have been in cells with up to twelve inmates. Here we are lucky; there are some prisons that have up to 45 occupants in a cell slightly larger than this one, which means that people have to share beds and the floor is covered by mattresses. 

The bathroom is inside the cell. It is approximately four metres by five metres and separated from the main cell using a curtain made of the plastic bags, which is not so much a problem in summer, but in winter when the temperature drops to 10°C, it is not easy to take a shower. Here you are expected to take a shower at least once, if not twice per day. Even so, I cannot complain. Imagine taking a shower with two other people; this happens in some prisons here.

The Brazilian staple diet is beans and rice, which I have never gotten used to. We get meals here at lunchtime and in the evening. The beans and rice is normally accompanied by meat. Occasionally we get salad.  During my first couple of months I lost a lot of weight because I was not used to eating beans and rice twice daily.

I started feeling a little weak, I imagine due to the poor quality of food but now, the British Consulate provides me with multi-vitamins (purchased with money sent by Prisoners Abroad). Recently the price of beef has increased by 20%. We receive one small chunk of beef (less than an ounce) with a lot of rice and a few beans. There is talk that the government wants all prisoners to work and pay for their food.

For those with money, it is possible to supplement the meals here by buying products from a short list once per month. This limited list mainly includes sweets rather than savoury foods – cake, biscuits and sugar, but also powdered milk. 

Brazilian prisoners tend to be overweight, possibly due to the poor diet and limited opportunities for exercise. Even though we are allowed in the exercise yard twice daily, it is small and usually busy so it is not so easy to run around. Saturdays and Sundays are visitor days, when the cell stays open from 8:00am to 3:30pm.  There is no special visiting area, so visits take place in the cell. 

When a prisoner has a visitor the other occupants of the cell are not allowed to enter. Visitors are permitted to bring a few food items (chosen from a list) – a small quantity of each. It’s usually the only time we get any fresh fruit and vegetables.  Visits are limited to close relatives such as spouses or immediate family, but inmates can choose to add one friend to the approved visitor list. Authorised visitors are also allowed to send small quantities of other approved items such as clothes, stationery, medicine, personal hygiene products, and other limited food items.

It is well known that visits of relatives and friends are important for the rehabilitation of inmates. Unfortunately, some visitors try to bring drugs into the prison, and so the wardens treat all visitors badly. Whenever someone needs to speak to a government lawyer or doctor, they have to write a note requesting an appointment. Normally, appointments take a long time to schedule, even for the doctor.  In emergencies all the prisoners start to shout until the duty prisoner officer attends the patient.  For examinations, patients are sent to a hospital not too far from here. If the problem is more serious, inmates are transferred to another prison where they stay for at least one week.

When I first came here I decided not to think too much about the length of my sentence. Almost immediately I started to teach English to other inmates to make the time pass quicker and to support myself in prison. I also made friends with a guy from Haiti and exchanged English classes for French classes.

There are some ‘advantages’ in the Brazilian prison system. It is possible to reduce the length of the sentence considerably by attending school (four hours daily), working (eight hours daily), reducing the sentence by one day every three days. Correspondence courses can help to reduce the sentence by up to as much as 50 days, and passing school examinations by as much as four months. I intend to do everything I can to reduce my time here so I have now started studying to pass the school examinations. For this I mainly need to study Portuguese and the history and geography of Brazil.

In a place like this, I think that it is important to make friends. This can be difficult when you don’t speak the language perfectly and especially in prisons where people use a lot of slang. Often, we do not know if we have made true friendships or not but it is good to have someone or some people watching your back. I am quite timid in general so I needed to make an effort with interpersonal relationships.  Now I feel quite confident that nothing too unexpected will happen to me.

Maintaining health in prison is crucial.

Prisoners Abroad translates human rights law into practical life-saving actions by providing prisoners access to vitamins and essential food, emergency medical care, freepost envelopes to keep in touch with home and books and magazines to help sustain mental health.

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