We stood in a room that had seemed large before, but was now cramped, with nearly 30 men standing shoulder to shoulder in this former city bus garage, now transformed into a prison off one of many busy Rio highways. We watched the dust rise from the floor as we scuffled around, stretching, playing, yelling, singing.
Some might expect snapshots of angry men, bearing their teeth. Violent criminals, banging against the bars that enclose them. But a life of incarceration isn’t all that Prison Break would have you believe. The media breeds images of barred cages, unforgivable criminals, while behind the visiting glass sit humans—men, women, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children. And often, that humanity is forgotten as we place labels of crime on those who once occupied the seats next to us in the classroom or checked their groceries out moments before us.
Twenty University of Michigan students had traveled to Brazil to work in various prison settings.
Through the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), we had prepared by facilitating arts workshops, such as “Theatre and Creative Writing,” in men’s and women’s prisons, as well as youth facilities, around the state of Michigan. Since 1990, members of the PCAP organization have worked to humanize the numbers, empowering prisoners to have a space of freedom and expression in a setting where anything but being tough is ostracized. Art has taken a form of therapy, in prisons around the United States and around the world.
Several years ago, the PCAP program at the University of Michigan created a lasting partnership with UniRio, which sponsors a similar prison arts program in Brazil, sending students to work in prisons and communities throughout the city. This partnership has evolved into an exchange, where students can explore cultural immersion through global incarceration arts.
PCAP student facilitator and participant of the Brazil exchange, Anna Garcia, has found this program to be impactful to participants, facilitators, and society as a whole, “This work is important because it does more than serve as a distraction from life in prison. Workshops allow for prisoners to feel excited, happy, even human. As for society, we are aiming to change the perceptions about how prisoners are viewed and how the incarceration system is simply regarded as ‘working’ when it actually holds many problematic practices.”
In the U.S., we had been exposed to the hardships that face those who are serving or have served time. But what we saw upon entering the Brazilian prisons was that the culture, structure, and standards of prison living were far different than in America.
American prisons, while still a somber, unpleasant place to be, were relatively clean with automated glass doors, which made movement through the prison relatively quick. There was a waiting room indoors, several vending machines, a set of lockers, bathrooms, and drinking fountains.
In Evarisio se Moraes, an all-male facility in Rio de Janiero, the doors were barred, as you’d see in a movie, large keys strapped to the guard’s belt. It seemed that there were few security measures, besides a 1980s metal detector, but upon entering, we found families waiting in poor facilities to visit, large guns, and much fencing and bars.
No guards ushered us in as they would have in the U.S. We strolled into a long room with a small stage, chairs lining the walls. We waited for a while, as time in prison is never predictable, until men began filing in. The numbers quickly surpassed those of ours in the U.S., where we generally had five men in attendance. We stood and watched as 20 to 30 men came to fill the space. Words of Portuguese, Spanish, French, and patchy English were all around as the men tried to communicate—telling us their names and where they were from. Without resistance, the men hugged, kissed, greeted everyone as an old friend. Anything more than a brief handshake would have been reprimanded in the States.
As the workshop began, we were swept into a flurry of games that allowed the men to express themselves. From simple name games to word associations, the participants and facilitators alike were dissolved into fits of emotion, smiles, laughter, tears, shrieks. Everybody was excited and actively participating. The final activity of the workshop proved its true purpose—theater as rehabilitation.
Men were split into groups of four or five, where they were instructed to act out an important moment in their lives using only still scenes. Some groups were asked to portray the happiest moment of their life, the saddest, the scariest. This exercise resulted in images of poverty, police brutality, hunger, but also images of family, friends, children, and loved ones. Here we saw participants of a theater workshop, sharing their experiences as humans, not criminals or numbers or animals. One of these speakers was Edson Sodre who shared his story, along with thoughts on changes in Brazil’s society.
Sodre was incarcerated years ago, but was able to participate in a semi-open prison program that gave some prisoners the opportunity to work or take classes during the day. The prisoners left early in the morning, with a mandate to return at 10 pm to sleep in the prison.
Sodre was one of the few to partake in the semi-open opportunity, using his days to study philosophy and literature at UniRio. For years, Sodre was able to live half-freely and benefit from Brazil’s free public universities. This freedom, though, was temporary. In the past year, Sodre was confined again full-time, due to a change in prison policy. Sodre quoted philosophers and cited literature from some of the world’s greatest authors, but the words of a formerly free man, dragged back into the shadows of corrupt justice, touched the hearts of so many:
“I must ask, does crime really exist in a society where there is hunger, violence, and a failing economy?” Sodre said, tears in eyes. “It’s not enough to have good intentions; today, you must make a choice.”
Sodre was at the same time both content and dejected. He had performed well, but he would have to return to prison once again.
Those at PCAP hope that through their work they will not only change those who are incarcerated, but also impact society in ways that will relieve those affected within and outside the prison system of the stigma that revolves around crime, incarceration, and so-called justice. In the words of Ashley Lucas, the director of PCAP, “This experience is all about letting people be themselves instead of changing them or punishing them.”
This work isn’t about changing the people behind bars; this work is about reminding people that humans are humans in every circumstance, in every country.