Interview: Tackling Period Poverty in Brazil’s Prisons

Translated from French by Jessica Sutton.

Amanda Naif Daibes Lima from Belém in Brazil, sat down with the She’s Right team to discuss the feminist project ‘Rosas Aprisionadas’ (Imprisoned Roses). 23 year old Amanda works with the team at ‘Imprisoned Roses’ to ensure women imprisoned in Brazil have their basic needs met, particularly through access to period products.

How would you describe ‘Imprisoned Roses’ and your role in the organisation?

The project emerged in class in 2018, in the middle of a discussion about constitutional rights of women in prison. We discussed that these rights are formally set out in Brazil’s constitution, but they are often not respected in reality, especially here in Belém. So the project was born out of this disconnect between the explicit law and its implementation. For example, the right to personal health isn’t respected due to the over-population of prisons in Brazil, lack of medical assistance, and basic hygiene products including period products. On the initiative of students with the support of our Professor Juliana Freitas (all pictured above), the project aims to change this reality by first ensuring the minimum health needs for each female prisoner are met, but also with a view to securing more substantive rights throughout the criminal process including the right for legal advice, for example with the aid of Brazil’s Women Lawyers Commission. Currently we are working on a booklet about women’s rights in prison to raise awareness of the laws and gain support for their implementation. We want to study more widely issues connected with women’s prisons, and create events and speaker events around this theme. I’m working on the booklet at the moment and I’m helping to distribute it on the internet and in schools.

Why were you drawn to this project?

Personally, I think we as human beings have to cherish the lives of other human beings. As citizens, it is our obligation to observe rights guaranteed by law, but also to carry out social activism when the State doesn’t deliver what is needed. It shouldn’t have to be like this of course. Rights should be afforded to everyone regardless of the circumstances, but it’s just not the reality for us today in Brazil, which I would say is a very unequal country. As a woman, the project made me understand a marginalised experience, imprisonment, and more precisely the experience of female prisoners and their particular needs such as period products. Brazil still has a sentiment of treating prisoners as the “enemy”, meaning that once an individual has committed a crime they should experience the worse deprivation of rights and liberty possible – that they deserve to be hungry and confined in tiny cells (sometimes cells have 12 women housed in a space of 12m by 6m). Taking all this into account, I think the project raises awareness of a worrying reality.

How many women receive resources from your organisation, and how do they react to the project?

We have distributed 650 kits containing soap, deodorant, tooth brushes, and period products to the Centro de Recuperação Feminina, a prison in the city of Ananindeua, in Pará. The day of distribution, we met the female prisoners, members of the Commission, and the prison’s director to talk about plans for the future. The project was welcomed by the female prisoners. When we are organising or collaborating on an event which discusses incarceration, we try to partner with the feminist cooperative COOSTAFE (Cooperative of Feminine Art) which is the first feminist prison cooperative in Brazil, allowing female prisoners to create hand-made objects which are then sold on their behalf. The female prisoners keep the earnings made by sales of their art.

Was it difficult to get a project of this kind started in Brazil? What were the challenges?

It was extremely difficult to get the project going in Brazil. I don’t know of any similar project ever existing here. Because we were students, we had financial problems, of course. The primary objective of the project (delivery of the hygiene kits) was achieved thanks to donations from people who supported the project. Brazilian prisons are far from being adequate. The project only delivered kits to one centre, but from my own research I can see that Brazil’s prisons suffer from over-population, poor health, poor administration, and lack of public and social support. As I already said, this reality is marginalised and often ignored. From the point of view of female prisons, the problems are even more difficult. Female prisoners have specific needs, and we saw that our prisons are made by men and for men. The very structure does not conceive of the needs of women. Some examples include: worries for children on the outside, dealing with pregnancy in prison, lack of medical care for pregnant women, giving birth without sufficient medical help, children being taken from their mothers after birth, the lack of social structures to support the baby and mother, lack of period products, violence committed by prison guards, difficulty of securing visits from family and partners…the list is endless.

Do you think that there is a crisis of imprisonment of women in Brazil?

Yes, there is a crisis of the prison system more widely as well. Imposing imprisonment is seen as the rule, even though there are various kinds of criminal sanctions. Prisoners on remand are kept in provisional prisons before trial, meaning they are kept confined and anxious about the outcome of their trial without guilt being confirmed. We see prison being considered as the only solution even when other punishments are possible. This largely stems from that idea of ‘othering’ or ‘punishing the enemy’ I talked about earlier, fueling this crisis of imprisonment. Unfortunately it is a structural problem. Many studies have looked into why it exists in Brazil, considering social inequalities, what drives crime, which crimes are over-policed and therefore lead to more incarceration, and what is the demographic of the prisoner population (generally people who are in a lower socio-economic position, with reduced education and increased social marginalisation).

Are there new challenges for the project due to the issues posed by COVID-19?

Without doubt! The project hasn’t been able to access the prison during the pandemic, but we can imagine the conditions are totally inappropriate – keeping numbers of women together in the same minuscule cell without access to hygiene and health resources. The number of infected inmates isn’t known exactly, but prisons have taken measures such as banning visits and contact with the outside world. It has been very difficult to address the pandemic in Brazil generally, but in the close quarters of a prison the problem is even more difficult to confront. We are luckily able to work from home to an extent on the booklets we are producing about women’s rights in prisons, but we are constantly worried about those women we can’t protect from the virus or provide with medical care and basic needs.

Why do you think that period poverty (lack of access to period products) is such a widespread problem in Brazilian prisons?

Period poverty is a huge issue, which really drove the creation of ‘Imprisoned Roses’. In our prisons, even the constitutional rights to health are not respected, even basic needs such as soap. We called attention to the specific needs for women such as period products. Ultimately, period poverty is just one rights violation among a host of others in Brazilian prisons. I’m not sure how much this problem affects prisons in other countries, but where there is a violation of human rights, I think we have to act and fight to protect these rights.

How would you describe the climate of women’s rights in Brazil at the moment?

Women are confronted with many obstacles in Brazil, notably in the workplace. Women are still expected to do housework and/or childcare at the same time as study and work, and this definitely creates an overload of work. Sexism in Brazil goes from sexist comments on the street, all the way to femicides. Because of femicides, the Maria da Penha law was created concerning domestic and family violence, for the protection of women. Sexism is of course present in all countries, as I observed from my time at the LabCitoyen women’s rights conference, although in different degrees. Delegates being 55 young people each from different countries, we all fought for the human rights of women, because no one felt that women were on an equal footing with men in their country. For me, I would say that imprisoned women are doubly invisibly. Firstly, because they are women, and secondly, because they are in prison and therefore excluded from society.

In your opinion, what is the most important thing to change about society to eradicate period poverty and improve quality of life for women in prisons?

The prison system needs to conform to the legal rules which govern it, such as the Constitution which guarantees fundamental rights of imprisoned people. The environment should be adequate, there should be access to medical supplies, food, a variety of activities from art to sport, and basic needs such as period products.  A fact that needs to be highlighted is that yes, a person’s liberty has been restrained, but the other human rights of that person still need to be guaranteed. It shouldn’t be a values judgment, or a question of whether we like that fact or not,  we are all citizens and human beings. And it’s important for us outside of prison to fight for the protection of these rights. I think that if we act to change society’s view of inmates as ‘enemies’, and rather as individuals, we can start to secure their rights on a global scale. 

Would you encourage advocates to attempt a similar project in other countries?

I think it’s possible, for example the booklet we are working on could be produced in other countries by addressing the individual laws overseas. When I was in Paris, I was able to visit the International Prison Observatory, and I saw that it was an organisation serving prisoners in multiple ways: producing pamphlets which exposed violations of prisoner rights, and publishing ‘guides for prisoners’ which is a guide for inmates, their families, and the legal profession, answering basic questions on the prison system. Like ‘Imprisoned Roses’ is still quite a recent project, there is a lot of scope to explore and develop into other domains. I also think people engaged in such issues have a lot of power to create projects aimed at changing social reality, slowly moving us towards a future where everyone’s human rights are respected as per the Constitution.

One thought on “Interview: Tackling Period Poverty in Brazil’s Prisons

  1. Thanks for highlighting this – I’ve worked in prisons and you are right when you say “prisons are made by men and for men” – even in western society this is the fundamental problem. Women in jail are still women, still mothers, still needed by their whanau/community. There are some very big problems in all prison systems: overcrowding and violence and disease. While they’re working out solutions to those problems, the very least any prison system should do is provide basic needs.

    ‘Rosas Aprisionadas’ – kia kaha – great work.

    Like

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