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On Mother’s Day, Brazil Is Sending Its Convicts Home to See Their Moms

In Brazil, Dia das Mães is an unusually big deal. Families gather for celebrations and meals. The retail sector sees a spike in business topped only by Christmas. And thousands of prisoners are released temporarily so that they can go home to visit the women who raised them.

SAO LUIS, BRAZIL - JANUARY 27:  Inmates stand in their cell in the Pedrinhas Prison Complex, the largest penitentiary in Maranhao state, on January 27, 2015 in Sao Luis, Brazil. Previously one of the most violent prisons in Brazil, Pedrinhas has seen efforts from a new state administration, new prison officials and judiciary leaders from Maranhao which appear to have quelled some of the unrest within the complex. In 2013, nearly 60 inmates were killed within the complex, including three who were beheaded during rioting. Much of the violence stemmed from broken cells allowing inmates and gang rivals to mix in the patios and open spaces of the complex. Officials recently repaired and repopulated the cells allowing law enforcement access and decreasing violence among prisoners, according to officials. Other reforms include a policy of custody hearings and real-time camera feeds. According to officials there have been no prisoner on prisoner killings inside the complex in nearly four months. Critics believe overcrowding is one of the primary causes of rioting and violence in Brazil's prisons. Additionally, overcrowding has strengthened prison gangs which now span the country and contol certain peripheries of cities including Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Sao Luis. Brazil now has the fourth-largest prison population in the world behind the U.S., Russia and China. The population of those imprisoned had quadrupled in the past twenty years to around 550,000 and the country needs at least 200,000 new incarceration spaces to eliminate overcrowding. A vast increase in minor drug arrests, a dearth of legal advice for prisoners and a lack of political will for new prisons have contributed to the increases.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
SAO LUIS, BRAZIL - JANUARY 27: Inmates stand in their cell in the Pedrinhas Prison Complex, the largest penitentiary in Maranhao state, on January 27, 2015 in Sao Luis, Brazil. Previously one of the most violent prisons in Brazil, Pedrinhas has seen efforts from a new state administration, new prison officials and judiciary leaders from Maranhao which appear to have quelled some of the unrest within the complex. In 2013, nearly 60 inmates were killed within the complex, including three who were beheaded during rioting. Much of the violence stemmed from broken cells allowing inmates and gang rivals to mix in the patios and open spaces of the complex. Officials recently repaired and repopulated the cells allowing law enforcement access and decreasing violence among prisoners, according to officials. Other reforms include a policy of custody hearings and real-time camera feeds. According to officials there have been no prisoner on prisoner killings inside the complex in nearly four months. Critics believe overcrowding is one of the primary causes of rioting and violence in Brazil's prisons. Additionally, overcrowding has strengthened prison gangs which now span the country and contol certain peripheries of cities including Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Sao Luis. Brazil now has the fourth-largest prison population in the world behind the U.S., Russia and China. The population of those imprisoned had quadrupled in the past twenty years to around 550,000 and the country needs at least 200,000 new incarceration spaces to eliminate overcrowding. A vast increase in minor drug arrests, a dearth of legal advice for prisoners and a lack of political will for new prisons have contributed to the increases. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

All over the world, people are forgetting to call their mothers on this second Sunday of May. Get on that, if you live in one of the dozens of countries celebrating Mother’s Day on May 10 this year. In Brazil, Dia das Mães is an unusually big deal. Families gather for celebrations and meals. The retail sector sees a spike in business topped only by Christmas. And thousands of prisoners are released temporarily so that they can go home to visit the women who raised them.

Prisoners in Brazil who demonstrate good behavior and meet other requirements are allowed to take five breaks from prison per year: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Children’s Day, Christmas, and one additional, flexible day. During the Christmas furlough two years ago, 47,531 inmates across Brazil left prison on temporary release. Some 2,400 never bothered to return. The Department of Corrections in São Paulo did not respond immediately to questions regarding the size of this year’s mass furlough.

More than 550,000 Brazilians are behind bars — the fourth largest prison population in the world, after the United States, China, and Russia. By most measures, Brazil’s prisons are in horrid shape, plagued by severe overcrowding and rampant violence. In 2013, nearly 60 inmates were murdered — in a single prison. An investigation uncovered that gang leaders were systematically raping inmate’s wives during conjugal visits there as well. In another facility, three prisoners were beheaded during a riot. And beneath the searing horrors that make international headlines, ordinary prisoners face terrible miscarriages of justice, often waiting for years in overcrowded group cells just to stand trial. While spared some of the violence male inmates face, women prisoners also contend with harsh conditions of confinement and abusive treatment, according to Human Rights Watch.

Despite the high rate of escape — which could be reduced through electronic monitoring, according to InSight Crime — the furlough program has substantial benefits: It helps inmates remain engaged with their communities and families, and helps them reintegrate more easily after release. It also leads to a spike in lawbreaking: A 2015 report by the U.S. State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security reported “notable increases” in crime during holidays in Brazil — attributable in part to the “liberal system of prison furloughs.”

“Many people in Brazil believe that inmates must suffer, enduring hunger and depravity,” Euza Beloti, a psychologist, told the New York Times in March. “This thinking bolsters a system where prisoners return to society more violent than when they entered prison.”

The furlough system encourages a more progressive approach. And not all furloughs mark traditional, wholesome occasions like Mother’s Day. A new, experimental program has begun granting furloughs for another reason: Rituals deep in the jungle during which inmates consume ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogen. “Each experience helps me communicate with my victim to beg for forgiveness,” Celmiro de Almeida, a homicide convict who has taken the drug nearly 20 times since going to prison, told the Times.

No word on how his mom feels about this method of rehabilitation. Call your mother!

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy@bsoloway

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