World

Inmate contest brings holiday cheer to Brazil prison

In her sweat-stained Santa suit and soggy cotton-ball beard, Carina Barbosa looked every inch the picture of tropical Christmas cheer — at least until she leaned into the candy cane striped bars of her cell and peered wistfully out.

Barbosa, a 29-year-old who's serving time for drug trafficking, was one of more than 500 inmates ringing in the holidays Thursday at Rio de Janeiro's Nelson Hungria prison with religious plays and a cell-decorating contest.

The inmates, who are serving time for offenses from burglary to homicide, spent weeks decking out the cell blocks with holiday decorations they made from objects they have access to behind bars.

Christmas trees were made from strips of green plastic from soda bottles, the presents below out of empty milk cartons swathed in tissue paper. Wreathes were fashioned out of the aluminum plates that prison-issue meals are served on, and the floors were sprinkled with a light snowfall of ground-up Styrofoam. Tropical heat-resistant snowmen were made from white plastic cups, and family members supplied Santa suits and store-bought ornaments.

Each cell of 50 women or more also put on a skit dramatizing biblical stories, with many depictions of Jesus' life, as well as David and Goliath, giving the prison's would-be thespians their chance to shine. Voices soared in rapture with the religious songs, and many, many tears were shed.

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"As we decorate our cells we are also decorating our souls," said 30-year-old Vanessa Kelly, who is in the eighth month of a six-year sentence for drug trafficking. "We've unleashed the Christmas spirit in all of us."

Prison director Ana Gabriela Rosa Maia said the event, now in its sixth year, helped turn the penitentiary around.

"When I got here, this place was dirty, and the relationships between them (the inmates) were complicated," said Rosa Maia, adding the contest had proven "the way to wake in them an authentic Christmas spirit of love, equality, faith and hope."

Brazil is notorious for its woeful prisons, which have long been blasted by human rights groups for rampant overcrowding and inhumane conditions.

But all of the 531 inmates at the prison — one of two women's units inside Rio's sprawling Bangu penitentiary complex — has her own concrete bunk bed. And the spacious cinderblock cells are free of the overpowering stench, clouds of mosquitoes and troops of roaches that are usually a staple of lockups here.

Cleanliness was one of the criteria used to evaluate the nine cells Thursday by a panel of judges made up of directors from area prisons. Inmates from the winning cells scored prizes from coveted name-brand hair products to plastic stationary fans to a 21-inch flat-screen TV.

Adriele Cesar, a 21-year-old who was has already spent three Christmases behind bars on a murder conviction, said the holidays were the hardest time of year for many of her fellow inmates.

"A lot of us know that we're not going to have any visitors around Christmastime, and that's not easy," said Cesar, who, with her shoulder-length curls and eyeliner beard, cut a striking Christ in her cell's Easter-themed Passion play. "Working all together on this project brings together and helps up form a new family on the inside."

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