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The entrance to the prison I visit in Franco da Rocha

A few moments from recent prison visits:
On Holy Thursday, I was passing through the outside gate of the provisional prison at Belém with Sr. Catherine and Edina when we stopped to greet an elderly man seated near the gate.  He was blind.  He told us he was being released — he was just waiting for his wife to pick him up.  He wept as we congratulated him on his release and said, “It’s a beautiful thing, it’s a wonderful thing.”   Sr. Catherine knew him from previous visits and questioned him about his sight.  He had not entered the prison blind.  It turns out that during his incarceration, he developed glaucoma.  Visits to the eye doctor were delayed.  And delayed.  And as a result, a treatable condition had resulted in permanent blindness.  This man’s joy at his release, just in time for Easter, lifted me up — but at the same time I could not help but be deeply bothered about the avoidable loss of his sight.  Surely his original sentence had not included being blinded.
Last week, at the penitentiary at Franco da Rocha, my colleague explained to the men in each cell block and workshop that she wouldn’t visit for several weeks because she would be taking care of a gravely ill family member.  Her worry and concern for her relative was clear.  For the men, her absence will be hard — she researches their legal processes for them and helps them with many things that I cannot.  Whenever I enter a cell block without her, they ask when she’s coming — and when/if she arrives, they surround her, everyone wanting their request to be heard (and when she doesn’t come, their disappointment is palpable).  But last Friday, they surrounded her for a different reason — to offer support.  In each instance, several men spoke up to assure her they would be praying for her and her family.  They told her not to worry about their concerns.  And when other men arrived late to our gathering, the prisoners who were there earlier explained the situation and said, “we just need to be patient now and pray for her.”
Another day as our team was leaving Franco da Rocha, one of the guards spoke to us, mentioning a horrific murder that had been in the news lately.  He finished his thoughts by saying gruffly, “And you want to come in here and visit these men, and help them?”  For me, his question brings up all of our human desires for vengeance, for wrong-doers to be punished, to be locked up and the key thrown away.  Natural desires, perhaps, which make those who have been found guilty of crime into the “other,” the “not-me.”
My exposure to the prison system here has led me to reflect more about the efficacy of our justice systems, both here in Brazil and in the United States.  I have much to learn, but here I do not see these men getting much support for changing the behavior which landed them in prison in the first place.  Without this support, upon release we often have someone committing more crime, and then we have more victims of crime.  The men I meet in prison have made poor and often violent choices.  Some have assaulted others, or murdered them.  Some are involved in drug trafficking.  Some of them, if I met them outside the prison, might be a danger to me.  Others would not.  I have no way of knowing, and it is not my place to judge.
I understand my role with the Pastoral Carcerária as working to make the prisons here in Brazil more humane.  To work so that a sentence of 5, 10, 20 years does not also include blindness.  To help the men maintain contact with their families so that they do have some support when they get out — so that they don’t feel abandoned, or hopeless, or that it doesn’t matter to anyone if they commit another crime, harm another person.  So yes, I do want to go and visit these men — I see their humanity, with its grace and its flaws, and can only feel privileged to listen and walk with them just a little way.

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