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A visit to Bangu prison

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As we approached Bangu Prison on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro I could see this was a big place.

“How many people are here?” I asked.

“Around 80,000 prisoners,” was the reply. Bangu was not just a ‘big place’ this was basically a prison city.

Myself and Tommy were being taken to the prison by Luke Simone, a volunteer who works with young offenders at Bangu and lives in Rio de Janeiro.

Luke and around seven other volunteers visit the unit (one of many at the prison) every Monday for two hours.

The young people are aged between 16 and 21-years-old and have committed serious offences including murder.

Luke, originally from the UK, tells us due to sentencing guidelines in Rio, juveniles tend to stay in prison for up to six months before they are moved to a lower security prison where they continue rehabilitation before being freed.

Organised by the Baptist church in Rio the volunteers run football sessions for the young people and other recreational activities.

There is also time in the sessions for prayer, worship and just talking to the lads.

This was my first visit to a prison, with my only other experience of prison life being watching the film Shawshank Redemption and the TV series Prison Break. In other words I had no idea what to expect.

Once we had gone through the various security checks we were taken to what was basically a classroom as we waited for the guys to arrive from their ‘lodgings’. Due to it being a young person’s unit usual prison terms such as cells tend to be avoided. Although guards call the boys by their prison numbers rather than names, which I thought rather defeated the point.

Anyway as we waited I wondered what these lads would be like. Troublesome? Moody? Angry? Sad? Basically any negative word I could think of. All of them, I was told, were from the same gang in Rio, this is to avoid fights breaking out between rival gangs in the unit.

A guard opens the door and in they come one by one in white t-shirts, dark blue shorts and flip flops.

Any negative thoughts I had quickly disappeared as the energy of these kids (these were not battle hardened adults by any stretch) literally shocked me.

In they came around 15 of them, shaking each one of us by the hand, giving us a hug and asking how we were. There was some small talk, mainly about football, before the session started.

One of the volunteers introduced me and Tom to the group and asked if any of them had any questions for us. Naturally they had plenty, ranging from the work we do to who we are now supporting at the World Cup now England has crashed out.

The group then headed to the indoor football pitch which had seen better days.

We split up into three teams and began playing a mini tournament. Our first proper football match in Brazil and it was in a prison. Not Copacabana or Ipanema beach or a five-a-side football pitch somewhere in Rio but in Bangu prison.

The atmosphere though was fantastic. Ulisses, one of the volunteers, kept things in order. Any swearing meant ten press ups, deliberate fouls meant five press ups and so on.

As the teams alternated I chatted to some of the boys on sidelines who were keen to ask more questions on life in England and how often we play football back at home.

In terms of on the pitch, I again was nicknamed Rooney (something going on there) and despite costing my team a goal I made up for it by scoring one to put us through to the final which we unfortunately lost 1-0.

Post-football the boys did some worship and prayer before listening to a quick talk by one of the volunteers which marked the end of the session.

Again they all came and shook our hand, gave us a hug, congratulated us on our game before heading back to their lodgings.

I know there will be many of you who will read this and have a tonne of questions. Should prison be so jolly? Is six months a joke of a sentence? Surely 20 years is more appropriate? Perhaps even the death penalty? Can young offenders be rehabilitated in that time? Does rehabilitation even work?

I certainly had some similar questions but having only got a glimpse of prison life I am not an authority on the matter.  

What I will say is it is easy to forget that this is a different culture to England, there are different needs here (as well as a lot of similar ones for example a need to be loved). Gang life here is on a different level, as is the level of poverty and obviously Brazil’s justice system is different as well.

The best thing I can recommend is reading what Luke, one of the volunteers, said to us below about what he has seen working with these young people.  You can also listen to what he had to say on our Taste of Rio feature on the podcast.   

"Each community in Rio are owned by separate gang factions. The community I am in is run by the Red Command and those are the people who dictate the trade of drugs and arms in the community. 

"When they go to prison they separate them into groups so there is no infighting between the individual factions. The CV is probably the largest faction in Rio. 

"The main challenges with this kind of work in the prison are showing the young people that there is a different way of living that there is a possibility of a new chance and a new start. 

"Many of these boys are fearful. They fear their families, they fear their friends, they live out of fear. They feel as though there is no other option. 

"The system in Rio is that the boys are kept for a minimum period of time as possible within the prison. So the sentences are usually three to six months. 

"They then go to a semi secure unit where they can visit their families. The idea of rehabilitation is one that is held up here which is attempted by the state as there are social workers and psychologists. But basically the sheer numbers of people going through mean that 'aftercare' is not really attended to. 

"So it is a bit like sticking a band aid on the issues as they come up. Unfortunately there are many situations where we deal with children `who we deal with several times and we see them again and they come back to the same situation. 

"Sometimes they cannot leave the circle of violence and crime and they end up dead. 

"The difficulty is they go back to their communities and the community is very tight, physically they are very tight, you know what is going on around you. 

"The risk is you fall back almost like a recovering alcoholic or drug addict with temptation around you all the time. 

"Sadly the reality for some of these boys is they have not done any crime, they are basically the one who has been labelled as the one who will take blame for the crime that was done by other people. 

"In other situations the bureaucratic and administrative situation has been fluffed so they are in for a longer period than they should be. A lot of them don't have legal counsel whatsoever so they are in the hands of the state. 

"In terms of opportunities there are few but this is where I think we can make a difference as a group and people that want to see justice done we can step in. 

"Caring for them when they leave is a fundamental thing. Some of them just want to get out, some of them just want to carry on as they earn a lot of money. 

"The younger you are the more likely you are to die by playing with fire as these boys do. It is a case of talking them while they are still young, showing them that there is another opportunity, but also helping them walk afterwards."  

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