Heidi Cerneka

Year Joined MKLM: 1996
Country: Brazil
City: Sao Paulo
Focus: Civil & Human Rights
Project(s): Human Rights for Women in Prison
People Served: Women in prisons in Brazil

Project Goal(s): Provide direct support for women in prison, raise national awareness about their plight and advocate for policy improvements.

Personal Data
Heidi is originally from St. Louis, Missouri. She joined MKLM in 1996. Before that, she worked in pastoral counseling at Loyola University Ministries in Chicago, IL. Her work there focused on women in situations of substance abuse and domestic violence. In addition, Heidi spent two years in Belize working with the Jesuit Volunteer Corp. Heidi received her degrees at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, IN, and Loyola University, Chicago.

Current Ministry

Currently Heidi lives and works in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Her primary ministry since her arrival there in 1997 has been with women. Initially, she worked with women in prostitution, and eventually she began working full-time in the jails and prisons of Sao Paolo. Now she works with the National Prison Ministry- associated with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference. Specifically their prisoner outreach program. While she works with the team on public policy and human rights issues for all people in prison, and for their families, she also has a specific focus on women in prison- because they are virtually forgotten by the general population and the prison administration. She works with state and national coordinating teams on both a governmental and non-governmental level.

There are almost 9,000 women in prison in the state of Sao Paulo (and about 30,000 nationwide). Sao Paulo houses half of the inmates in the entire country. Heidi’s ministry provides direct pastoral support to the women prisoners carried out through regular visits. In addition, it prioritizes participation in local and national forums to inform the public about these issues and promote systemic improvements.

Heidi networks with local, state and national governmental organizations to affect change in the treatment of women, the hearing of their cases, and opportunities for alternative sentencing. The project refers specific cases to human rights organizations for follow-up.

The Prison Pastoral works both nationally and internationally to look at larger issues related to crime, drugs and drug trafficking, and many other issues that repeat from country to country. Heidi recently had the opportunity to participate in a United Nations working group meeting in Bangkok, Thailand to create Supplementary Minimum rules for the treatment of women in prison and women subjected to non-custodial measure (like probation).