I travel the world working on the streets, in schools, orphanages and especially prisons. I know that some of you may not really understand the thinking in dedicating so much time, money and energy to visiting prisons, both in the third world and in the US. It is common to think that they are prisoners, receiving the due punishment for the crime they committed, and of course in many cases this is true. But there are many stories and many issues faced in the juictice system both in the third world and in the US that sometimes we don’t think about.
Sometimes people have the thinking like it’s “them” and “us” . I have heard people talk about prisoners almost like they are a different race or something. But we are all human, and all capable of making mistakes or finding ourselves in situations that are beyond our capability to deal with. Sometimes we break.
I remember one day in Argentina, I was taking a taxi to the main prison office down town. The taxi driver was an older man who asked why a blond, American woman was visiting the central prison office in Buenos Aires. When I explained that I was meeting with the secretary of justice to request permission to work in the prisons throughout the city, he had a very cynical, self righteous attitude and said it was a ridiculous thing to do. Those who do wrong deserve what they get. Since I was stuck in the taxi with this dude for an hour, I decided to not get upset with his attitude but rather reason with him.
I told him how I had just met a young man in Chile who had been in prison for 10 years for stealing a bike when he was 16 and never even seen a judge. I told hime about a guy who was home with his mom when an intruder came in and attacked her. He punched the guy and unitentailly killed him. Since South America has no “self defense” laws, he was charged with murder and in for 20 years.
I talked to a man in a prison in Michigan with a similar story. He punched a guy who owed him 5$ and tragically, the guy fell, hit his head and died. I told him about a prisoner in Colombia who was innocent but mistaken for someone else. When his case finally got reviewed and the mistake was realized, the man had served 7 years in a hell hole of a prison, caught a sickness and died shortly after he was released.
I explained how a huge percentage of prisoners have never even seen a judge. And also the point that we are all human, we are all capable of making mistakes getting angry, doing something wrong out of desperation. Maybe our mistakes didn’t end in grave consequences … but they could.
The conditions prisoners face in the third world are inhumane and not fit for animals. Seriously, here in Rio there is a prison near a zoo and the animals have better living quarters then the prisoners. There is barely enough food to sustain grown men and the food is horrible. At a prison we work in, in a city across the bay from Rio called, “Niteroi”, the food constantly arrives to the prison rotten and inedible. The men are so thin and starving it is heartbreaking. The prisons are so overcrowded that at times they have to take turns sleeping (this was the case in the prisons in the Philippines).
A prison we visited in Peru, called, Lurigancho, was the most corrupt prison I have been into and one of the worst in the world (I think there is a movie or a book about this prison). Very long story for another time (or you can read about it in a past post). The prisoners only get food if they buy it so they have to go to extreme measures to get money.
Anyway, by the time I was finished speaking to the Argentina taxi driver and we arrived at my destination, the man had completely changed his attitude and come to realize how wrong he was. He realized that he had also made mistakes in his youth, they just didn’t end in prison. He ended up apologizing and not charging me for the taxi ride:)
So I just ask you to keep an open mind when thinking about prisoners and consider the other side of mistakes, bad circumstances and the twists and turns that life can take at times. For me personally, I have seen that prisoners can be some of the coolest people you will meet. They have been broken by life and in place of a big ego, remains reality and depth.
Above all the reasons I focus time working in prisons are the words of our Lord Jesus when He said, “I was in prison and you came to Me..” (Mt.25:35). Of all the specific people he could have mentioned, he mentioned prisoners. To think that Jesus Himself was in prison, waiting for a death sentence to be carried out, and no one came to HIm.
“Remember those in Prison as though in prison with them…” (Heb.13:3)
I have seen a lot throughout my years of working in prisons around the world. Here are a few cool stories, photos and experiences 🙂 :
We worked in all the prisons in Southern Brazil, including, one of the largest in Brazil. In that prison, each patio of the prison is run by a gang member, so to enter, you have to have permission from them. The warden of the prison called a meeting with all 26 gang leaders. We had to pitch to them what and why we wanted to put on a performance in their patios. We later received a document with the signatures of all 26 gang members asking us to come. So we spent a lot of time in that prison working in each patio and also building and facilitating an art studio ( you can read past posts about this).
At one of the prisons in a city called, Jacui, Brazil, the directer, who was a general in the army, originally said there was not a chance in heck he was going to let an american family into the prison. He went on to tell us horrible stories of how dangerous the prison was. It took some convincing, but he finally agreed to let us perform in a certain patio as a test. We had to again get the permission of the gang leader. We were escorted into the patio with a long line of swat type cops carrying machine guns. Long story short, after our performance the same general said he was blown away by how we were able to take control and hold the attention of all the men. He said we broken the paradigm of hate.
At this same prison, they had no septic system for the waste, so the smell in front of the cells was unbearable. We were able to put a plan together, bought some supplies and got some donated and built a way for the waste to get underground. The improvement in the smell after our work was incredibly better. The men were extremely grateful and the prison exploded in applause when we left. We were also able to get a lot of food donated and buy some for a certain section of the prison that was lacking.
Once in Argentina, near Mendoza, we actually camped on the prison grounds by the guard quarters because it was in the middle of no where with no lodging options. That very night there was an escape attempt and we watched the entire thing unfold. The prisoners set their mattresses on fire out their windows, broke out and then fled on the roofs, down into the dark. The guards were flying around with their dogs. It was like watching a live movie. We later read in the papers that is has a high profile criminal who had made multiply attempts. They called him “El Gato”, the cat. He was eventually caught again but not that same night.
At a prison in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the rain was so heavy outside that it broke the roof and water started pouring in. The prisoners helped us move all of our equipment and reset up so we could actually continue. Then they kept up a continual mopping and dumping so that we could still stay.
At a prison in Michigan we were doing two performances for two groups of inmates. The guys were so cool and so grateful. Between shows the inmates made us an awesome chicken lunch.
At a time in Peru, the government was so corrupt they would not let us in to some of the prisons after we performed in Lurigancho. I had already bought and put together a lot of care packages for the men in a certain prison in a town called, Callo. So being the crazy kind of person that I am, my sisters and I took a taxi out to the prison on the women’s visiting day. We mingled in the line with the other women waiting to get in. We had to wear skirts and flip flops, (which I very much dislike!), and we had to be searched like the other women. We made up a name of “our brother” the prisoner we were visiting, and shockingly, the guard asked us if we knew were to go once inside, we said yes, (didn’t have a clue), and he waved us through.
Once inside, the prison was controlled by the prisoners who were respectful of us and allowed us to visit from patio to patio, talking to the men and giving out care packages.
In one patio there were 600 men and my sister and I spent time sharing with all of them about the Fathers love and explaining about the hope for forgiveness. They all applauded and were so grateful.
Eventually the director of the prison came out and had caught on that we knew no-one here and were wandering around visiting people. Surprisingly he did not admonish us but was full of admiration and respect. He told us we had to leave since we did not have authorization from the very corrupt main office, but he delayed escorting us out so we could visit everyone on the way out and give out everything we brought. Definitely one of the craziest, coolest things I have done.
We were invited to visit the prisons in a city called which is about 6 hours from Rio. It is the third largest city in Brazil and has the second largest prison population.
The main office had contacted us to ask us to do a tour there, originally asking us to visit 20 prisons, but because of our current budget, we are only able to do a short trip at this time and we will visit four, doing double performances at each to reach two sections of each prison. In the future, we hope to return and live in the city so we can work extensively in the prisons.
They had invited directors and judges and social workers from other units to watch as well and everyone was really moved by our performance and grateful. They want us to work here in the future.
One of our acts is a comedy routine about a “:soccer player “and a “dog:” who steals his ball. In it both the actors take of a coat revealing the two rival soccer teams of the city we are in. The cheer and laughter is deafening. We spent a lot of time teaching the men so many things about forgiveness, letting go of their past, forgiving their enemies and the hope of the Father.
The boxes we designed have been invaluable as a teaching tool. Each side has a different image on them that we use to help explain different points about the capacity of our mind, the power of our free will, creating a new paths in our thoughts, or using them as an interactive game.
The men were so grateful and its always really hard to say goodbye and see them being taken away. They gave us some really cool gifts they made for us that I will always keep.
This whole week we have had to be out the door by 6am and back really late, so its been some long days. Another prison we visited holds 1800 men and is over capacity like the large majority of prisons here in Brazil. The state of Minas Gerais, where we are now, has the second largest population of prisoners, second to Sao Paulo. At this prison, after getting through security a guard with a large angry dog led us to the center patio where we set up.
We were surrounded by cells full of men all shouting and calling for attention. It was loud and crazy due to the cement walls and horrible acoustics. Then they brought in the prisoners, group by group, 500 in total. We gave out a bunch of candy which always helps the guys kind of warm up to us and let their guard down. It is nearly winter here, so the temperature in the early morning is quite cold and these guys were freezing in their cells and glad to come into the sun.
It was a mixed audience of young, old, long and short sentences and men of all faiths and background. Music and laughter are international languages and they touch the hearts of all men. Once we get them laughing and enjoying a magic routine, we then have a platform to share deeper things with them.
By brother does an act with a birimabu, a Brazilian instrument used in the martial art of Capoeira. He teaches how we each have our own rhythm and to be an individual , not go with the crowd. In the dance we use fire torches and he spins a fire rod. Its really awesome! Afterward we bring up a number of men to “play” Capoeira with us and it is a time when everyone has fun, and the whole crowd claps and gets into it.
After we finished we spent time talking with small groups and listening to their stories. One young man told me he was two years into an eight year sentence. He said he was innocent and set up by a gang. He was so grateful for what we taught about forgiveness.
Another man had 20 years to go and was hoping to get transferred to a prison closer to his four kids. Story after story breaks your heart. The tragedy of life. The workers, guards and directer were very impressed and grateful. They gave us a lot of cool gifts that the prisoners had made.
Another prison has located way out in the country. It held 1800 men and we performed for around 400. We were not allowed to take photos in any of the prisons, and the ones that I have were taken by photographers and released to us. I don’t have any from the inside of this one but we spent a beautiful time with the men, around two hours. They delayed lunch so we did not have to cut short. At the end, we passed a mic and let the inmates ask questions and share some of their stories.
The prison we visited on the last day of our trip, is the oldest and worst in the state. It is 75 years old and basically a crumbling, 5 story dungeon housing over 4,000 inmates. We had to carry all our equipment across a muddy field to get to the area. The guard who was the head of security was really cool and got around ten inmates to help carry all our stuff. He wouldn’t let my sisters and I carry anything.
They brought out around 200 men directly in front of us, and then there were 1500 men sitting with their legs through the cells, 5 stories up. I was concerned that it was going to be very hard to keep their attention since there were so many spread out and it would be normal for them to be talking, shouting and distracted. But we were shocked by their absolute silence, respect and attention. It was like even the guys way high up were sitting right in front of us listening. They would cheer so loudly after each act and shout down comments, questions and gratitude.
The state prison director, who is over 180 prisons, brought in the press to document our work and publish it nationally. They also invited around 30 directors and administers from other facilities. This was definitely a day I will never forget.
We do a piece of theater to the song, “Fragile” (by Sting), where I start out as if trying to jump rope but can’t. I say that it is stupid to be playing like a child. I can’t be a child anymore. My life is so difficult, full of suffering, no one cares and I am all alone. I speak to what I know my audience is thinking. I say how I have no Father, Then my father comes behind me and embraces me. I cut my jump rope in half and toss it aside saying that my life is broken. Through the act my dad, portraying our heavenly Father, shows me He forgives me, heals me and draws me back to Him. Through a magic trick, the “jump rope” is repaired and we then go into a routine of magic and clowns that are whole family is involved in to the Cirque do Solie song, “Alegria”. It is a really moving act and every time these tough guy prisoners, are in tears watching this performance and applaud throughout it.
A reporter from the state documented our work and they later published articles and televised news programs about our trip here.
We visited a prison in Paraguay that held 5000 men all in the same area. We performed right in the middle and all the men crowded around. It was definitely one of the worst, darkest, saddest, most horrible places I have seen. The men were starving, beat up, exhausted, sweating hot and many were sick and secluded. We had to be really wise in the way we handled this whole situation.
At another prison, also in Paraguay, right on the other side of the prison wall a huge fire broke out and the wind was blowing the smoke, ash and flames towards the prison. We had a crowd of around 2000 prisoners and we did not want to have to leave. Then in a second, the Lord Jesus heard our prayer and changed the direction of the wind. The men all applauded and we stayed.
We visited Rikers Island in New York. It was freezing cold and the wind of the cost was bitter. The guys were so grateful that we would come in there.
In Philadelphia, the set up a stage and curtain in the gym and brought out a few hundred prisoners. They filmed our whole performance and played it for the entire prison.
I had two special birthdays inside prison. One, in Bogota Colombia, in a prison called, “Picota”. My dad mentioned it was my birthday and while we were performing these guys made a beautiful little tree out of wire for me. It meant the world to me and I have to this day (nearly ten years later;).
At a prison in Argetnina called, “Almfuerte”, we performed back to back days. On the first day I mentioned it was my birthday the next day. From on e day to the next this guy had drawn a beautiful picture of Jesus laughing and he told me that after watching us and hearing our message, he realized that Jesus was full of joy. I was turing 33 that year and the picture is very special to me. I worked on it and made into a poster I know give to thousands.
My two brothers and I visited two of the largest prisons in Manila. By the grace of God I was actually able to organize these events from Las Vegas while working as a server. I emailed the main office and was able to find favor.
At the entrance in, there were a number of families and women living on the road that led in in just terrible, poor shakes. They cannot afford to travel far to visit their husbands and fathers so they live there so that they can see them and provide them with food. It was such a sad sight. We were traveling lite and didn’t have our full equipment but the prison directors actually had sound systems for us and offered to translate our whole performance into tagalog for many of the prisoners who did not speak good english. It was crazy hot there and the guys brought out a massive rainbow parachute that they strung over everyone to provide shade. The men were extremely grateful and quick to laugh and learn.
At a prison in Vaparaiso, Chile, they set up for us in a large gym. They actually dimmed the lights, had a spot light and sound system. They had put out a poster all over the prison a month of head of time so we had a huge turn out.
At a prison in Medellin, Colombia, we did not have time to apply for permission through the correct authorities so one day, my brother and I just went up to the main, massive gate, knocked on the door and asked to talk to the director. He invited us to his office, brought in all the heads of staff and security in a boardroom and within minutes he was fully on board and organized everything for us to perform the following day!! It was incredible. We performed twice, one in a huge patio with around 900 men, and another one in a large catholic cathedral for 1200 men.
At a prison in Uruguay, we were performing in a large field for 800 men. The performance was going good and everyone was into it. Then, in the middle of a Capoeira performances, my brother did a flip and when he landed he tore his achilles tendon. They gave us emergency care there at the prison and then we went to a hospital in Montevideo. The next day we had another performance scheduled at another prison and I invited he stayed to rest, but he wouldn’t hear of it:) So we pushed him in a wheel chair and it meant the world to the guys that he came anyway.
At the largest prison in Santiago, Chile. There is a place in the center of the prison called “The Oval”. It is a plaza surrounded with jail cells over crammed with prisons. I went to talk to the directer about organizing a performance there in the Oval. Apparently the day I came he was in a really bad mood the staff told me. They said they asked him for me and he said no, it wasn’t possible. I invited to talk to him myself and said I would wait. The guard gave me a heads up and told me he was a tough directer. So eventually he met with me and ended up screaming at me full volume that it was not possible. I waited for it to die down and then talked to him a little personally about how I understood the stress and pressure of his position. He ended up cooling down, apologizing and allowing us a performance in the prison Oval.
At a women’s prison in Chile, a women wrote us a song that she sung for us! At this prison a year ago, there had been a horrible fire that trapped in an killed 20 prisoners. It was absolutely tragic and sadness and pain scarred the walls as much as the smoke and burn marks did.
At a prison in Concepcion, Chile, My brothers and I had taken a bus to get to the city. It was freezing cold and there was snow on the mountains. We did not have our full equipment or props, but we wanted to visit the men and women in the prison there. It is like the end of the world here.
The lady at the main office called here to give them a heads up and then we were able to talk our way in. We visited the women first and then the men after lunch. We did magic tricks, theater with them and talked. It was a beautiful time. We visited two mens patios, each with around 500 men. I had bought these harm hats to give to the guys, but the were an army green color which apparently wasn’t allowed because it was the same color the guards were, (I had no idea). But the head guard was so cool he let me give them to the guys anyway.
Well, I could go on and on but I think thats probably enough of my stories for now:)