Guest blogger Katie Brown on theatre in the Rio prison for mothers and babies

15 Jun

mountains in Rio

Hola! My name is Katie Brown and I’m honored to be representing Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project here in Brazil! Over the past semester I helped facilitate an improv workshop with two wonderful co-facilitators at Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan, with a group of incredible and dedicated men. I am so thankful for the opportunity to take this theater work overseas, and have experienced far more than I could have imagined!

On our first day here in Rio we woke up early to meet the other student facilitators and professors at Uni Rio. From there we all split into groups to visit two men’s prisons, a women’s prison, and a prison for mothers and their babies. I went to the prison for mothers and babies, UMI, with two other members of PCAP and two facilitators from UniRio who made a huge effort to include us in their work.

It was challenging to compare this experience to my experiences with prison work in the U.S.; I have never been to a women’s facility before, and facilities specializing with women and their babies do not exist in the U.S. There, babies are taken from their mothers immediately after birth, which, as one could imagine, would be an incredibly painful separation. So it was great to see this facility in action, with a really caring, happy, and smiling staff. This prison, which houses about eighteen mothers at a time, didn’t really seem like a prison at all. It had a nice garden, a view of the mountains, an outdoor area for the mothers to play with their babies, a colorful nursery, an infirmary, two large bedrooms for the mothers and babies, and a kitchen where the mothers could prepare food (the only prison in Brazil where they allow for prisoners to prepare their own food). The staff emphasized that this facility is meant to be a place not focused on the crimes of the prisoners but rather dedicated to nurturing their newborns.

UMI is such an asset to these mothers, but the hard parts come before and after the child is 0-6 months of age. The staff there work to improve access to nutritional meals for pregnant women housed in other correctional facilities before they are transferred to UMI. We heard that it isn’t uncommon if the incarcerated pregnant women don’t eat for a whole day, and the food that they do get is pretty awful and low in nutrition. They are not given any medical care while they are expecting and are simply separated into a different part of the prison. We were glad to see some effort to change these circumstances, although many changes need to be made to create an accommodating environment for incarcerated pregnant women. More heartbreak comes after leaving UMI. Brazilian law states that mothers are allowed to be in a facility like UMI for two years after giving birth. However, this is the only facility that accommodates pregnant inmates for five Brazilian states. Because demand is so high, UMI can only hold women until the baby is six months old. They then make room for another mother and newborn. After six months, the mother’s family is assessed to be fit for caring for the child. If they are, they can take the baby. If not, the baby is put up for adoption and ties are cut from the mother. The process is arduous when a baby’s mother continues to be incarcerated and separated from their families.

The Uni Rio student facilitators we worked with go to UMI every Tuesday morning and create wonderful workshops where the women can be silly, sing, dance, and play games. One of the games we played involved blindfolding one mother at a time while everyone else sat in a circle with a baby in hand. Everyone switched seats while the blind folded mother had to go around and guess which baby was hers just by touch. This one got lots of laughs! They showed us lots of songs that they sing and during one song we held the babies arms and made them dance in our laps. We danced around, sang, chatted, laughed, and enjoyed each other’s company. Some of the mothers were happy to just pass off their babies to us to have a little break. I was happy to hold the little ones! We had lots of fun together and were able to communicate thanks to our wonderful translator, Silvina. I’m so grateful for the experience of joining the workshops here with Uni Rio. These women brought us in with open arms and we did our best to create a space for laughter and expression with them!

Shakespeare wall

Michigan and UniRio students outside the theatre building on UniRio’s campus

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