In Brazil, loved ones may be far away but remain supportive
In the largest prison in the state of Minas Gerais, female prisoners receive all sorts of support. This help is dependent on the relationships that the women maintained on the outside before their incarceration and is complemented by inmates’ web of support.
The relationship between life on the inside and outside is of central importance in understanding how detention is organised in Brazil. It is even a matter of survival, both physical and emotional. What is the relationship of female prisoners with the outside world? Is it one of support, restructuring, abandonment? Ludmila Ribeiro, a sociologist, and Natália Martino, a doctoral student in political science, are both researchers at the Centre for crime and public safety studies (Centro de estudos de criminalidade e segurança pública, CRISP) at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).
They took an interest in the lives of women serving time in Belo Horizonte (in the state of Minas Gerais). Prison Insider asked them three questions.
In many cases, these women were first pregnant when they were 12 or 13 years old. They have multiple children and each child further complicates their situation.
Prison Insider. How does a woman’s socio-economic role outside of prison affect her situation as a prisoner?
Natalia Martino. Our study was completed in the largest female penitentiary in the state of Minas Gerais. A few figures to get started: the number of female prisoners is rising much more rapidly than the number of male prisoners. In Brazil, 60% of female prisoners are imprisoned for drug-related offences, compared to less than 30% of male prisoners. This is compounded by the issue of pregnancies at early ages. In many cases, these women were first pregnant when they were 12 or 13 years old. They have multiple children and each child further complicates their situation. We attempted to understand the influence of the relationships that these women had on the outside on the ones they have in prison. We identified three major categories:
#1: A network based on external arrangements for the women who were not the primary breadwinners for their household before their incarceration. In most cases, these women leave behind some savings. The burden of incarceration is clearly somewhat lightened by a significant family network on the outside. Family members and friends use the savings that the women left behind in order to help them during their detention. This support network on the outside supplies them with items that the state is not able to provide, and other goods, that the women can use in the informal market which develops in prison. There, they can exchange goods and services with other prisoners. This type of market, though illegal, is nevertheless common.
#2: A network based on internal arrangements for the women whose social ties were already very weak on the outside. Once jailed, they have no choice but to rely on arrangements inside the prison to survive. Drug addiction and poor education make them very vulnerable. They can only rely on the administration and existing structures to provide them with legal and medical assistance. The informal market alone is capable of giving them access to basic supplies. As they have nothing to bargain with, they offer services: cleaning, for example.
#3: A network based on the entanglement of internal and external webs, which is the most common profile. This often applies to single mothers with several very young children that increase their socio-economic vulnerability. Before their incarceration, these women were often responsible, both financially and emotionally, for their children and other members of their family. When they are jailed, their families must adapt. Children might be separated and entrusted to different family members, friends or neighbours. Parents are often compelled to move, and adolescent siblings might leave school to find paid work and contribute their earnings to the family. These are examples of the far-reaching consequences of incarceration.
The jailed woman must make substantial efforts to establish a network in prison that can support her and support her family on the outside. Money, emotional attachments, information and many other things are exchanged with great intensity between prison and the outside world.
In summary, one could say that interactions are organised depending on the social background of the prisoners. Over time, the relationships forged within the prison environment are also woven into social lives on the outside. The social role of the women impacts the manner in which the inside and outside networks intertwine. Women are often made to take responsibility for their families from quite an early age, and they are influenced by the traditionally gendered roles which structure society.
Ludmila Ribeiro. When I submitted my thesis twenty years ago, female prisoners were viewed as having neglected their assigned role in society. For example, they took on secondary roles in criminal activities, often pressured into them by men. Once convicted, they were abandoned by these men, if only because most of them were also incarcerated. Their families also abandoned them: they felt that they had refused to follow the rules and did not behave as a real woman was expected to. Natalia Martino and I study how women survive within the penitentiary system.
Rather than weekly visits, we see parcels and letters being sent and the cost of telephone calls from the prison being covered.
PI. You mentioned survival in prison. What role do family and friends play during incarceration?
LR. Most correctional facilities are not in a position to provide essential items such as toilet paper, shampoo, soap and drinking water. Families play a crucial role: each week, they bring packages to the prison. Without these visits, these products, which are necessary for survival, are simply not available. Each week, women – mothers, wives, daughters, nieces – wait in long queues to visit male prisoners and bring them everything they need, including food and other items. Food is an especially distinctive item. Wives and mothers prepare special dishes for the prisoners, as a token of affection. Within the female penitentiary system, the situation is not the same. When women are the prisoners, the whole family must adapt. Goods are often more challenging to obtain. This does not mean, however, that they do not feel cared for: rather than weekly visits, we see parcels and letters being sent and the cost of telephone calls from the prison being covered.
During interviews, the female prisoners endeavoured to emphasise that the only way to survive in prison is to think of those they love. This bond, this love, is essential and is not expressed exclusively through physical contact. It is maintained by other interactions such as discussions, letters, drawings and objects.
NM. Beyond providing emotional and financial support, family and friends also have a role in terms of access to justice. A family who hires a solicitor or requests a duty solicitor (Defensoria Pública) to secure a better defence can make the difference between a prison sentence of several decades and community service. The state and the prison administration also have roles to play. The institution that we studied prohibited food parcels and parcels with other items on visiting days. For families, this meant paying to make the trip to the prison twice: one day for visiting, another to bring the parcel. But the cost of the trip varies, depending on whether the prison is located in the city or farther from large urban centres – where most of the families live. The rules differ from one institution to the next, but they are a critical factor in the structuring of social ties.
The external networks of these women are often very influential. Their members are heavily involved in providing help and support during the difficult period that is incarceration.
PI. The price of incarceration is a high price for these women to pay. We often say that they are abandoned. What do you think?
LR. We absolutely do not agree. These women have not been abandoned. At each interview, they tell us about their sons, their daughters, their mothers. These people did not have the means to visit them and instead concentrated their efforts on supplying essential items. Some female prisoners explained that they felt closer to their families since their incarceration. They need their family to look after their children, to help them survive in the prison system. Some women depend on receiving supplies to craft handmade objects that they can sell to the surveillance officers while in detention. These meagre earnings enable them to buy from the prison commissary or make deposits in an account which they will use after their release.
Numerous studies highlight the inability of female prisoners to forge quality bonds with each other, claiming that the relationships are antagonistic because women have learned to be in constant competition. That is not always the case. They support each other when one among them is sick or cannot rely on her family.
NM. There is a wealth of literature available on Brazilian prisons and more broadly, on prisons in Latin America, and these works show that it is impossible to survive in prison without external support. However, the same literature asserts that the women were abandoned and that they have no one. If that is the case, how can they survive? Most of this work pays particular attention to the sadness on visiting days in the institutions for women, compared to the flurry of activity in the institutions for men. But this observation cannot be our sole basis for judging the situation: it is much too simplistic.
The external networks of these women are often very influential. Their members are heavily involved in providing help and support during the difficult period that is incarceration. Put simply, they help in other ways, which are not reflected on visiting days.
We should specify that we did not pay particular attention to the marital status or the emotional ties of these women. In fact, husbands and partners were not specifically mentioned by the female prisoners when we asked about their supporters. If the idea of abandonment is simplified to that of abandonment by a partner, then we may be able to, effectively, say that they are abandoned. Even if the assertion should be entertained, however, numerous other elements would need to be considered to properly grasp the situation. Are the husbands or partners also incarcerated? Are these women married or in relationships? It is impossible to better address this topic without first responding to other questions.
Interview by Yaël Davigo.
Translated by Maura Schmitt
Ludmila Ribeiro, Natália Martino, “Flows in a Female Penitentiary: Manoeuvring between Absence and Presence of Family Members” (2021). Available online.