Home » Education » A Key – Opening New Doors for Imprisoned Women

Lay Missioner Katie Coldwell’s dream to implant an organic garden in the largest women’s penitentiary in Latin America
By Kathleen Bond, Maryknoll Lay Missioner
In rural southeast Brazil, Margarida Ferreira’s downward spiral began slowly.  After separating from her husband, she began drinking while working at her small bar.  Before long, she was smoking crack. A short stint in a rehab program wasn’t enough and within months she was stealing in order to support her drug addiction which landed her in the largest women’s prison in Latin America, known as Sant’Ana in the city of São Paulo.  “God gave me a piece of land and I threw it away, “shared Ferreira surrounded by plants in the courtyard of the third pavilion of the prison complex.  “Then one day He gave me the opportunity to have another piece of land.  This time I took advantage of it. Even though I am in prison, I am able to grow in God’s love with working on this land.”
Ferreira  is an active participant in A Key, an organic garden project initiated by Lay Missioner Katie Coldwell,  a native of Excelsior, Minnesota, who was active in the Catholic Worker movement before joining Maryknoll in 2011.    Since arriving in Brazil’s largest city, Katie’s ministry has focused on women in prison.    The initial seed for A Key was planted during a municipal urban agriculture course that required the development of a community project proposal.   With the backing of the São Paulo Archdiocesan prison ministry team, Coldwell and Ariane Carvalho recruited a few of their classmates to start the collective organic in Sant’Ana, a sprawling penitentiary with over 2,500 inmates.
Fueled by Coldwell’s initiative and abundant enthusiasm, support for the garden has come from many places.  Upon completion of the 140-hour urban agriculture course, the project was awarded 300 starter plants.   Tapping into contacts back in Minnesota, a social justice-oriented women’s prayer group, Priscilla’s Sisters, gave an early donation.
But many resources have also come from within the prison walls.   “When we first arrived in the prison, the prison staff told us a lot of stories about projects that started and left soon after beginning, “said Coldwell. “But I have seen the prison staff become friendlier and more and more staff make themselves available to us.” A key backer has been Daví Maia, director of maintenance.  “The garden project has had a positive social impact on the prison and individual women,” stated Maia.  “I have seen women whose behavior has improved after participating in the program which is important for their time in prison but also a benefit that they will carry with them upon returning to society.  Mental health issues are common here and working with the earth is a therapy that helps with social and communication skills.”   Although the prison has a school, some jobs, and other activities, many of the women with psychological problems are not able to participate.
Elaine da Silva, a slight, elderly woman dressed in baggy, yellow uniform pants, is one of those women.  A long-time anxiety sufferer, she was constantly getting into fights with other prisoners and guards on the cell block.  “I have problems with my head.  It was a nightmare to stay in my cell all day because of all the shouting, “commented da Silva. “ Working in the garden has helped me tremendously. Now I have a better head and I don’t create problems for myself and others.”
As we entered the garden nestled between dilapidated, gray cell blocks with light blue bars, Ferreira, da Silva and a number of women were weeding.  Keeping with their ritual, Coldwell and her partner Carvalho gathered everyone for a collective moment of sharing before planting.  The women, seated on benches made by recycled wood from the garbage area, passed bread and lemongrass tea as they commented on their week.   As da Silva received her bread baked from garden-grown sweet potatoes she said, “Thank you. It is so good when someone remembers us.”
Environmental Education is a component of the project but Coldwell and Carvalho discovered early on that many of the women are illiterate.  Through group dynamics they use a methodology which focuses on complementing the experiences of the participants in the learning process.
As Coldwell finishes her 3 1/2-year commitment this year and returns to Minnesota, she reflected on how she has grown as a missioner.  “Initially, I had seen the creation of the courtyards as the primary need of the project, “she commented. “But now I recognize that the project is about relationships. … the women need social and intellectual stimulation with one another and outside visitors.  I think this ministry is the work I am most proud of.  We come as missionaries to be with the Brazilian people and to build projects together.  The project was an idea I had and developed with Carvalho, and now it is being turned over to Brazilians.”  Long-term Lay Missioner Joanne Blaney added, “Like all new missioners, Coldwell’s  journey in Brazil has been full of ups and downs, especially in the beginning with adjustments to a new culture and language.  Throughout her mission experience, Coldwell’s vitality, enthusiasm and engagement with Brazilians in her ministry and daily life has been a great gift to the Brazilian and Maryknoll community!  Her dedication to the women in prison is inspiring!
One of Coldwell’s final tasks is formalizing  A Key as an extension project of the Federal University of São Paulo which will enhance the future of the garden in terms of human resources and institutional backing for Ferreira, da Silva and many others.    “The garden has been a clinic for me,” beamed Ferreira as she showed off beds of tomatoes.  “Drugs were destroying my life.  I believe that I will leave this place changed.  I have faith in God and faith in my own willingness to change.”
Author’s note-Names of women participants in this article have been changed to protect privacy.  Photos of people in prison are prohibited by Brazilian law.

Erik Cambier
Erik Cambier served as Maryknoll lay missioner for 25 years, in Tanzania, the United States, Venezuela and El Salvador.