Monthly Archives: February 2012

I Was in Prison… Part 1

In addition to my parish work, I’ve been doing some prison visits as well.  My fellow Maryknoll-missioner Heidi has been working for the Pastoral Carcerária (prison ministry of the Catholic Church) here for 15 years, focusing mostly with women in prison and human rights.  Through Heidi I got connected with the Pastoral, attended a training, and began visiting three different prisons.


Earlier last year I had visited two women’s prisons with other missioners (once for a mass and once for a health class), but on those occasions I didn’t get a chance to visit the areas where the prisoners live.  When I went to a men’s prison with a team from the Pastoral for the first time,  I was completely taken aback when I entered the cell block.  I had seen the film Carandiru (about the 1992 prison revolt and massacre) and thought that the depictions of overcrowding, freedom with the cells and cell-block, decorations, and hanging laundry were a thing of the past.  I could not have been more profoundly wrong.  As we entered the cell-block, I felt like I was walking into a scene from Carandiru.


We entered a court-yard full of men who were just sitting around, with maybe a few playing soccer.  The courtyard was surrounded by two levels of cells, with towels and laundry hanging everywhere.   The cell we visited had eight bunks, but a prisoner told me that 20 men sleep in that cell at night.  The longer you’re there, the better chance you have of eventually moving up to a mattress.  Another prison I visit is CDP Belém, which is even more crowded.  One unit of the prison was designed for about 750 men, but holds almost 2,000.  The cells there have six bunks, and 30 men sleep in each one. (Check out these photos comparing the size and type of cells in Germany to the ones in Brazil).  At Belém I was very impressed with the soccer goals the men had constructed using string and plastic bottles!


“CDP” indicates “provisional,” meaning the men are there awaiting trial (the majority of men I met were in for drug offenses).  But because of nation-wide overcrowding, even those who have been sentenced can remain in a CDP long after they should.  A major downside to remaining there is that unless they’ve progressed to the point where they’re allowed to work (in the prison or out in the community), there is absolutely nothing for them to do all day.  One group of men showed me the paper swans they were making — simply to occupy their hands and minds, they said.


Each time I’ve visited a prison, it’s been a different experience.  One team I went with provided a charismatic prayer service and then spoke briefly with the prisoners before heading out.  Another team spoke with the prisoners first, took notes on questions they had about their judicial processes, and then offered a simple prayer service for All Souls Day.  Before we left the prison, we visited with the lawyers to follow up on the prisoners’ concerns and questions.  Another day, I was with a Franciscan priest who wanted to learn more about the prison and different ways that he and others could help out.  So we chatted with an administrator (who was great about helping me understand some differences between U.S. prisons/justice system and what we have here in Brazil) and he gave us a tour of the garden maintained by the prisoners in the semi-open unit.


I’ll write more about prison visits in a future post.  For now, it’s been good to get started in this ministry and begin to discover the meaning of Matthew 25:37  “I was in prison, and you visited me.”

Returning to my roots – Mizizi yangu

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in Mombasa.  The birds are chirping and all seems to be at peace.  I’m savoring the moment.  The challenges are still there, but I am grateful for a day of rest and the shift within that feels more calm.


Yesterday I ventured out with a ECHO volunteer who’s here for 5 months to help the HIV+ people I work with to use better agricultural practices to improve their nutrition, their environment, & their income.  All things which I’m excited about and which take me back to my roots in Iowa.  I’m trying to soak up everything I can and feeling like a 4-H’er again.  She’s come over a few times to help me in my little garden, but yesterday I went to help with the clinic shamba (field).  The sun was hot but the work both interesting and cathartic – throwing the jembe (hoe) over my head and back down to pull up the grasses and soften the soil in new raised beds.


The garden project was started a few months ago and has been successful in producing the greens from cow peas several times over – which have been sold locally – other leafy greens, onions, tomatoes and the carrot tops are now looking good.  A cow is providing milk daily and her young calf grazes and fertilizes the soil.  It will be an interesting project to watch grow and one I hope to contribute to as time allows.  I’ve been composting in my own little garden for 2 years now and have patches of good earth.  My addition to their training this week was samples of fresh compost vs the rocky stuff I started with – and a photo documentary of how to compost with kitchen scraps.


From the shamba, I went to my office (with a quick costume change and rinsing the dirt off my hands and feet – waa-la! – new person) to be with my students for an afternoon of tutoring.  I hadn’t told many that I was coming so I was surprised and delighted that 10 students came.  We did quadratic equations, statistics, logarithms and indices – including things I don’t remember from my own high school experience.  Working with some students is a delight, helping them to make a connection they didn’t see before or watching a light bulb go on.  With others, I see how far behind they are and realize that academic success may be out of reach.


In trying to help these students, I struggle with my own ambition, wanting change that might not be realistic and realizing so much is out of my control.  It is at this moment when I am reminded my work is not just mine, but of many and hopefully, the work of the God I try to serve.  My faith is challenged and stretched and helps me to return to my roots.


A prayer I will be praying with my co-missioner, Judy, later today, starts with the words,

Firmly rooted in the center of my being,


and opening to the touch of your Spirit …

Grateful for my roots deep in the soil of Iowa and in my faith in a God of love,


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