My name is Petra Pfaller, I am a Sister member of the Missionaries Sisters of Christ Congregation, from the city of Munich. I was raised near Munich, and for more than 31 years, I have been in a Mission in Brazil. I live in Goiânia, a city near Brazil's Capital, Brasília, where I also studied Law, I am a lawyer trained in Brazil.
In 1995 I was invited by the Archbishop Dom Antônio Ribeiro to help found the Prison Pastoral in that city. And in these 28 years I have been a part of many beautiful and challenging experiences with the prison population and their families.
Currently, I am the national coordinator of Brazil's Prison Pastoral, which is directly tied to the National Conference of Brazilian's Bishops (CNBB). I am immensely thankful for this invitation, to be able to tell a little about Brazil's prison reality, that is so harsh.
Our founder, Priest Moser, Missionary of The Sacred Heart of Jesus, gave us as charism: 'Be Light in the darkness of the World', - what is darker than overcrowded, stinky cells, with hungry people, forgotten by society, where men and women are buried 'alive'?
According to our last internal research, the Prison Pastoral is present in more than 75% of the dioceses in the country, we have 3000 Pastoral agents active, the majority being women between 50 and 70 years that visit the prisons weekly. In Brazil there are almost 1 million people incarcerated - not even the Government knows the exact number. The point is, we are very little in this enormous country.
Every pastoral agent is a voluntary person, meaning they aren't paid. There isn't this figure of the paid pastoral agent, be it by the church or the state, in Brazil. That is also my case as national coordinator, my congregation supports me and the Pastoral lives of donations and projects to support its mission: the travels and visits to dioceses, production of formation material, organizing our communication, the juridical team etc.
Brazil's prison pastoral has two main objectives: evangelization and promotion of human dignity. The challenges are enormous.
To talk about 'poverty in prison' in Brazil is to talk the prison system as a whole, because the prison is made to lock and torture a population that, in it's majority, is at the border of society: these people are poor, black and from the suburbs.
There are a series of laws, regulations and international treaties that guarantee the respect to human rights of men, women, the LGBTQIA+ population and the indigenous population that are locked in Brazil's prisons, but these laws are continuously ignored when we talk about the Brazilian prison population that doesn't have financial conditions; but when we consider middle or high class people that are locked, these rights are much more respected.
So, who has financial resources has access to justice and is privileged in all senses. A concrete example, these people can buy drinkable water so they don't have to drink the dirty and contaminated water supplied by the prison establishment.
Another clear example of this discrepancy in the judiciary realm occurred in 2017. Adriana Ancelmo, wife of the ex-governor of the Rio de Janeiro State, Sérgio Cabral, was arrested in December of 2016 due to money laundry, and had her sentence converted in march of 2017 to home prison, so that she could take care of her children, with 11 and 14 years at the time.
Her sentence conversion is foreseen in the law: mothers that have to take care of their children can have their home prison granted. However, there are many black and poor women in the same situation as Adriana Ancelmo, or even with less grave accusations, without the right to home prison granted. And, without the mother to take care of her children, the whole family collapses.
Another serious fact is that many women give birth inside the prisons, and their children are locked with them! The judiciary system gives home prison to a person with bigger status and social class while keeping the poor population locked up, because the judges and the judiciary system in Brazil are racist and classist by design.
Why can't these women do their time in home prison, taking care of their children in a much more healthy and less dangerous environment than prison? Because in Brazil, poverty itself is a crime, just like colour.
It's normal in Brazil that people are arrested and charged for years with a sentence just for being hungry and steal some food to not die.
And inside the prisons, the reality is total misery. The Estate has these people under custody and should take care of their rights and basic needs, but what we see in our visits as Pastoral are overcrowded cells, water rationing (many times dirty and contaminated water), bad food and, consequently, the spreading of diseases.
It's what we as Pastoral classify as 'Structural Torture', because placing these human beings in these types of environments is physical and psychological torture.
And it's not because of a lack of Estate money that this occurs: as I said, the Brazilian prisons have as a goal just punishment and vengeance, and these subhuman conditions are part of this process.
Another aspect is the financial subject: many companies profit with this mass incarceration: the privatization in the building and management of prisons, the millionaire contracts with outsourced foods. And the weapons industry has an enormous profit with the increase of violence.
Who keeps the locked person alive, granting the minimum to their survival, are the families of these people, who send food, clothes, bed sheets, and many other things to them.
This means that these poor families, which in the majority of times have little conditions of maintaining themselves, have to spend a portion of their budget so that the person in prison doesn't die behind bars, because the Estate doesn't grant the bare minimum to them. The situation has gotten a lot worse after the Covid pandemic and the Government of Jair Bolsonaro. The militarization of prisons and complaints we have received increased considerably.
The prisons always were very closed environments, and they were shut even more in these 6 years. Currently, the rules to visit the prisons are much harsher, hampering the access to the prison population, be it by civil organizations, as also to the churches, especially us from the Pastoral.
Since we belong to the catholic church, beyond evangelization we are also worried with people's dignity, so we make complaints on a national and international level, which brings a certain persecution by the Estate.
Brazil's National Prison Pastoral only sees one solution to the situation in prisons: that this population be released from prison. 10 years ago we created a document along other civil society organizations that has a 10 point program with the goal of releasing this population from prison. This material is available online and can be read in English and German.
One of the proposed goals is the further implementation of what is called Restorative Justice, which is a real alternative to the punitive system we have now, that only creates more prisons and increases violence, pain and suffering. What I exposed here is just a small part of all the horrible things that happen inside prisons, every day.
I end this speech thanking again for the opportunity of bringing to light this so painful reality of Brazil's prisons and affirm that all that I pointed out doesn't happen because Brazil's prison system is in crisis; it's the real project and function of Brazilians prisons.
Thank you very much,
Sister Petra Silvia Pfaller
National Coordinator Brazil Prison Pastoral - CNBB