University of São Paulo: USP goes beyond borders and takes a reading project to a prison in Angola

Three years ago, a letter dated August 21, 2019 said that only “three people” would know that the Angolan citizen named Osvaldo Mateus Nunes Fernandes was suffering from a serious illness. The revelation of that man, who was an inmate of a prison in Cacanda, Angola, was transcribed in a four-page letter addressed to professor Thais Barbosa Passos, a researcher at the Faculty of Education (FE) at USP. “So far, only three people know about my situation. It is the ‘Lord Almighty’ and the person who is going to read this story”. Thus, teacher Thais was the third person to know that Osvaldo was HIV positive. In addition, the intern authorized the professor to publish her correspondence in her doctoral thesis.

Osvaldo, who was about 40 years old at the time, was imprisoned in the Cacanda Prison, located in the area of ​​the same name, seven kilometers from the city of Dundo, capital of Lunda Norte, Angola. “I stayed from July to November 2019 in Dundo, located in the east of that country, in the province of Lunda Norte, which is 1,225 km from the capital, Luanda”, says the pedagogue, now a doctor, Thais Barbosa Passos. Cacanda, as the researcher informs, is one of the 40 penal establishments in Angola and is not considered to be of maximum security. The city of Dundo, according to her, had around 200,000 inhabitants at the time.

In all, the prison had a population of 511 prisoners, most of them young and convicted of murder, with an average age of 30 years.

The researcher’s studies in that Angolan prison were the basis for her doctoral thesis, entitled Prison Literature: action research in the prison establishment of Cacanda, in Angola , which was supervised by Professor Roberto da Silva, from FE-USP. “I received from Osvaldo the mission to read the letter and publish it in my work only when I arrived back in Brazil. And so I did! ”, says the teacher.

Right to education
For Thais, the experience of studying and working in prisons did not begin with this research. “While studying at Unesp, Faculty of Philosophy and Sciences, campus in Marília, I did an internship in a penal establishment in that city, in the interior of São Paulo”, she says. Later, during her master’s degree, she worked at Fundação Casa, in the city of São Paulo. “I have always understood that people, even if deprived of their liberty, have the right to education, which is capable of awakening in human beings the possibility of better reflecting on their condition”, describes the educator. However, nothing compared, according to her, to the conditions imposed on the inmates of the Cacanda prison.

Something that also caught my attention were pieces of plastic bottles by the windows. They were improvised systems for capturing rainwater to be consumed.

Even under extreme conditions, Thais managed to bring hope to those inmates. “In all, the prison had a population of 511 prisoners, most of them young and convicted of murder, with an average age of 30 years”, she recalls. In the part of the prison where Thais worked as a teacher, the inmates slept in large cells that held up to six prisoners each. And they all lived under a harsh routine. “They woke up at 5 am and often didn’t have breakfast,” she says. Among the first activities of the day, participation in evangelical services. After all, the Holy Bible was the only source of reading, as Thais found. “Those who didn’t go to worship went to the countryside to work,” she adds.

Little water, little food, little sport
In addition to the letter from Osvaldo Nunes, Thais received other letters thanking him for his work. And among them, there were reports of extreme hunger. The meal, almost always one a day, was called “grass” by the prisoners. “This name referred to the unit of measurement”, explains Thais. “The ‘grass’ came in very little quantity”, remembers the educator.
What to do in a place without resources, little food, scarce water…? In addition to the biblical readings, the prisoners sunbathed in a specific space within their own cells. There were also no sports activities. “Something that also caught my attention were pieces of PET bottles by the windows. They were improvised systems for capturing rainwater for consumption”, says Thais.

Books, balls, writings
The main objective of Thais’ research was to introduce the practice of reading and writing in that penal establishment, based on Brazilian experiences of adopting work, studies and reading as factors of penal execution with a view to reducing the time of incarceration.
“We introduced this work through reading and writing workshops,” she says. In the first four months of activities, Thais involved 26 inmates in a pedagogical experiment called Scientific Literacy. “We encourage them to speak, think, dialogue, read and write, contrasting their writings with some references”, she describes. At the end of the project, there were 24 prisoners, as two of them were released.

In Cacanda there is no mail service. There is no internet. The prisoners’ letters addressed to teacher Thais, like the one from Osvaldo Nunes, bring feelings of optimism and strength to move forward

But in an establishment where the only access to reading was through the Holy Bible , the researcher had to go in search of the necessary material to make the project viable. Thus, Thais managed to donate more than 800 books. “We even had to increase this amount, since the system’s employees were also interested in the practice of reading”, she says.

Thais established a routine in which she went to Cacanda three times a week, always in the afternoon. “After a month of activities, we requested reports from inmates on their life expectancies. We noticed satisfaction in their speeches”, she recalls.
In addition to the passion for reading awakened in some inmates of Cacanda, almost all of them loved football. Its practice was also made possible with the effort of Thais, who managed to donate five balls from the soccer team of the city of Dundo, Sagrada Família.

But what marked the researcher were the results obtained with the inmates and even the employees who started to practice reading. Among the various issues addressed in the workshops, Thais recalls the issue of names. “It was common for prisoners to be called by their pejorative nicknames. We highlighted the importance of being addressed by their names,” she recalls. In Cacanda, the prison is run by a military class of the Angolan government. “Prison directors were called ‘Parents’”, recalls the pedagogue.

Overcrowding in prisons is the main factor in the spread of tuberculosis
In Cacanda there is no mail service. There is no internet. The prisoners’ letters addressed to teacher Thais, like the one from Osvaldo Nunes, bring feelings of optimism and strength to move forward. “The need for continuity of work of this type is clear”, advises the researcher. In the city, as Thais informs, there was continuity by the prisoners themselves and even by employees. The researcher’s work was presented to the Ministry of Interior of Angola. According to her, there was receptivity on the part of the government agency and there was continuity planning until 2020. “However, we do not know if there was greater use from that moment on, due to the change in management”, she says. After this doctoral work, Thais’ next step in terms of her research is to publish it in a book.

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