Written by Catherine Heinhold
Part of my prison ministry work is making phone calls for the inmates to their loved ones. Most prisons in Brazil do not have payphones, and possessing a cell phone can have serious negative consequences. Some inmates write and receive letters, but many don’t have access to pen, paper, envelopes or stamps – or simply are not sufficiently literate to write. At my last visit to the penitentiary at Franco da Rocha, an inmate asked me to call his grandmother and ask her to visit. I assumed this meant that he wasn’t receiving visits at all, and that his mother was not in the picture. (Not receiving visits or packages is a hardship as inmates rely on family members to bring or send clothes, shoes, toiletries, toilet paper, etc. None of these things is normally supplied by the prison).
When I reached his grandmother, she turned out to be a delightful woman who told me that the inmate was her only grandson. “Oh no,” she said, “I will not visit him in prison.” I’m used to this response, and simply replied “Ok, I understand.” She continued, “His mother visits him every week, but I just don’t want to see him in that place, it would be too hard.” We chatted a bit more, and the bond between this woman and her grandson became clear. Just the fact that he was asking her to visit – even though he had other visitors – was unusual. Most of the guys are happy if at least someone (preferably a wife, or a parent if the inmate is single) comes. Finally, she mentioned one more reason not to visit – the security procedures to get inside the prison. To enter, family members must strip naked (one half of the body at a time) and squat several times to prove they have nothing in their body cavities. If the guards are suspicious, visitors may be required to use their hands to spread their intimate parts open for the guards to have a look inside. This happens to men, women, and children, including elderly people. “I’m 74 years old,” the grandmother said, “I am not about to put up with that kind of humiliation.” “I truly do understand,” I said. She sent her grandson hugs and love, and we hung up.
When I first started making these “telefonemas,” I found it really nerve-wracking. First of all I had no idea what kind of reception I’d get (if the person on the other end would be happy to hear from the inmate or not), and my Portuguese was still pretty bad. Looking back, I feel kind of sorry for those family members who had to try and figure out what I was saying!
Now, my Portuguese still isn’t perfect, and my accent is detectable from the first word I say, but the conversations do go a bit more smoothly. The three most popular reasons inmates ask to me to call are: to ask their loved one to visit, to ask for a package (of hygiene, food and clothing items), and to let their family know they’ve been transferred to a new location. I never know what I’ll encounter on the other end of that telephone line. I’ve had people hang up on me, give me specific insults to deliver and I’ve had to deliver several “break-up” messages to inmates. I’ve also delivered news of babies born, deaths and changes in addresses. It’s not unusual for a call to turn to a discussion of family finances since one of the main reasons people don’t visit or send packages is lack of funds. One of my favorite calls was to a woman who asked me to tell her husband that she was expecting another child. Her husband was locked in his cell when I delivered the message, and all of his cellmates gathered around to congratulate him.
Each call is a potential moment of connection with someone who is suffering or someone who is celebrating and wants to share their good news. Sometimes I just chat quickly with the person I’m calling, delivering the message that was sent. Other times, the phone call turns into an opportunity to provide pastoral care for inmates’ loved ones who suffer from the stigma of having a family member in prison – and who worry endlessly about how their son, brother or husband is doing. It’s a privilege for me to enter into these moments with family members, and again when I relay messages to the inmates – even when it’s difficult, or the people involved are frustrated or angry with each other. Family members and inmates are profuse in their thanks, but I don’t think they realize that these interactions are a gift for me too – a moment of solidarity and connection across the telephone line.