Professor Vicente Concilio and his students run a wonderful weekly theatre workshop with women in a prison in Florianópolis, which we will visit on Saturday. When the Office of the Secretary of Prisons for the state of Santa Catarina heard that our PCAP group was coming for another visit, they wanted us to visit a men’s prison as well to show us another facility. The prison authorities are a bit ashamed of the place where Vicente does his workshops because that women’s prison was formerly a storage facility for the men’s prison next door. The women there were literally living in storage closets when we visited last year. The women’s prison has since been renovated, and we’ll see the results of that when we do that workshop on Saturday. The prison authorities wanted us to see their main offices in downtown Florianópolis and also a men’s prison—one that they consider to be a more impressive facility. As a group, we are not particularly interested in seeing prisons as buildings; we want to do meaningful work with the people who are forced to live inside these facilities. We agreed to the tour of the prison because we want to support the theatre workshop at the women’s prison, and if having a group of folks from the U.S. visit another prison makes the powers that be more likely to support theatre programming, then we can do that. We also requested that we be allowed to offer a brief theatre workshop for a group of men who live in this prison.
We left the hotel this morning in a van provided by our university partners at UDESC and were dropped off at the Office of the Secretary of Prisons for Santa Catarina. We had a tour of the building, which mostly consisted of us looking out the windows at the excellent views that the office has of the city, the bay that surrounds it, and the unfinished bridge that is the symbol of the city. Several officials from this office welcomed us and spoke to us a bit about the 50 prisons in this state and the 22,000 people they hold. Then we were loaded into two vans to be driven 40 minutes out of the city to a men’s prison. The vans were driven by prison guards dressed in paramilitary outfits and holding large rifles. The Office of the Secretary of Prisons seemed to be putting on a big show of guarding our safety, even when we were just driving through town. Our Michigan delegation was treated as if we were some kind of diplomatic convoy sent to inspect the prisons.
The facility that we visited today holds about 1,300 men and is a maximum security prison. We arrived at the prison and entered an administrative building where we were shown a map of the prison and told a little bit about their security system and the various kinds of jobs that the incarcerated men do. They have a furniture factory inside the prison, and a certain Brazilian telephone company has all its phones assembled inside this prison. Corporations contract with the prison for the labor of the incarcerated people, and the men inside are paid the same minimum wage as all other Brazilian citizens. 25% of their salaries is taxed by the prison, and those funds are then reinvested in the prison itself. The men get to keep the rest of the money they earn, and many send it out to their families to help support their spouses and children on the outside.
We then went on a tour of the prison itself, which started with a walkway on top of the walls that surround the prison. Four guard towers mark the corners of the prison, and they are connected by walls 15 kilometers high. We were led all the way around the perimeter of the prison by the staff, who gave us some information about the facility as we made our way around. We could see men passing things to one another on laundry lines strung between the windows of cells next door to one another. They allow the laundry lines because the men have to wash all of their own clothes by hand. Later in the tour we saw the brand new mechanized laundry facility, which is due to open for the first time next week. I wonder how the change in laundry systems will affect the men’s ability to communicate with their neighbors. I could see a few of them looking at us through the gaps in their windows, and I wished I had a way to tell them that we had not come to get a look at the men in cages but to try to advocate for programming that would improve their lives.
After our walk around the perimeter, we were led through the inside of the prison. We saw several cell blocks, a number of places where the men labor in different industries, the kitchen, the soon-to-be-opened laundry room, and the visiting room. All in all, it was a very bleak place that I cannot bear to recount in much detail. One of the saddest sights was the cement courtyard that the men are allowed to walk up and down for exercise. It’s open to the sunlight, but It’s completely surrounded by cement walls, and the courtyard has a net across the top of it and several rows of barbed wire around its edges.
With the long, sad tour of the prison finally over, we were allowed a brief half hour to do a short theatre workshop with twelve men who were laboring in the furniture factory. We all had a really good time, which is remarkable given the fact that several folks had wept silently or come very close to it just moments earlier as we were forced to watch the harsh realities of this prison be presented to us as though we were touring a museum exhibit on forced labor. Somehow our theatre games gave us and the men who joined us a chance to put our emotions in a different register and open our hearts to this shared bit of work very quickly.
As I said goodbye to them, they thanked me and told me to, “Go with God.”—Vá com Deus. It was a beautiful end to a very difficult visit.
Boa noite (Good Night)!