This morning half of us were up early to go to prison with our friends from Teatro na Prisão, which is a program very similar to PCAP that does theatre work in adult prisons and with formerly incarcerated folks here in Rio. Professors Natália Fiche and Viviane Narvaes have done incredible work over the last twenty years or so with university students and people in prisons, and this program was the main reason that we began our exchange with UniRio, as the federal university here is known. We got to campus a little after 7, and from there we split into two groups to go to different prisons.
José, Dana, Kendall, and Sergio went to Evaristo de Morais, which is a men’s prison that was once a bus terminal. This phenomenon of converting a building that was originally meant to function as something else into a prison seems to come up a lot in Brazil. We saw a women’s prison in Floripa that was once a kind of storage facility for the men’s prison next door. Evaristo very much has the feel of a place where people were not meant to sleep. The top tiers of prison cells do not have real ceilings; they’re covered with a heavy wire mesh that lets rain, sun, wind, and any other kind of weather pour into the only living space that these men have. On top of that, the prison is very overcrowded. It was meant to have a capacity of 1,400 people when it was first converted into a prison. Now it holds over 4,000 men. Some of them live in rooms of thirty people, others in rooms of 100 people.
Prof. Natália Fiche went with this group of students and José to Evaristo, and even with her there to smooth the way, it took the group about two hours to get permission to enter the prison. Apparently there was a line of 300 women and children trying to get into the prison for some kind of event for families. We often see lines of visitors waiting to enter the prisons when we arrive to do theatre workshops. At the women’s facility in Joinville last week, Hannah and I saw lines of visitors who were forced to wear gray sweatpants and a white tee shirt to enter. It’s the only time I’ve seen visitors forced into a uniform, and it made them appear to be a new category of incarcerated person—their identities erased for the sake of conformity in the prison.
Though they only got to have one hour of what should have been a three-hour workshop, those who went to Evaristo really enjoyed playing games with the twenty-five men in the workshop.
I went at the same time with a different group of my students (Lio, Shannon, and Hannah) to a women’s facility called Materno Infantil, where incarcerated mothers who have recently given birth can keep their babies for six precious months. Legally the women actually have the right to have their babies with them for something like three years, but there is so little space in this prison and such a large number of women giving birth that the mothers only get about six months with their children before the babies have to leave the prison, while their mothers return to the populations of other women’s prisons.
This workshop is tough for a lot of reasons. All the theatre games have to be modified because many of us are holding these darling babies during the workshop, so we did a lot of things sitting down that we normally would have done while standing. It’s also tough because the babies interrupt the workshop because they need to be fed or changed. The worst part of the workshop is how much the mothers are struggling with their present situation. They will be separated from their children a few short months after giving birth, and if their families do not come forward to claim the children, the babies will be taken by the state, severing the mother’s rights to her child.
We didn’t have much trouble getting into the prison, and almost as soon as we did, I scooped up an adorable little fellow named Moises (Moses in English). He’s about three months old with curly black hair, and like all the babies in the workshop, he was incredibly well-behaved. He sat contentedly in my arms, and his mother ran off to do something else. She was just grateful for someone else to hold the baby for a while. Two of the babies in the workshop were just one month old, and they were awfully tiny. Lio held a little girl named Maria for quite a while.
After we’d been in the prison for a little less than half an hour, a staff member said that they couldn’t find the authorization from the prison authorities that was required for us to be there, and she made us leave. We said our goodbyes, left, and immediately called Prof. Viviane to see if she could help us get the necessary authorization so that we could reenter the prison. She made several phone calls and couldn’t get through to anyone helpful. We thought we were done for the day, but all of a sudden the prison officials found our security paperwork and let us back in. We then had about 45 minutes of workshop with the mothers and babies, and it was truly lovely. The UniRio facilitators led a few exercises, as did our students, and the mothers laughed and had a good time, as their babies snuggled in our laps. When we left, it was really difficult to leave the mothers and babies in a prison, and we talked about how much harder it would be for those mothers to have to let their children go in a few short months.
We had a long bus ride back to a spot near the Metro (the local subway), which we used to get us the rest of the way back to the hostel. We barely had time to grab some food and change out of our very sweaty clothes before it was time to go back to campus for a theatre game class with Prof. Miguel Araújo, who teaches UniRio students who are studying to become theatre teachers. We spent two hours in that class, trading theatre exercises and came out feeling somehow both exhausted and energized at the same time.
Boa noite do Rio (good night from Rio)!