Book portrays immigrant women in conflict with the law and the challenge of motherhood behind bars

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Livro retrata mulheres imigrantes em conflito com a lei e desafio da maternidade atrás das grades
Foto: Marcello Casal Jr/ABr

Published by Pluralidades, a book by Ana Luiza Voltolini, tells the stories of three migrant women who went through the Women’s Penitentiary of the Capital, in São Paulo

Written by Carolina Guagliano
Translated by Natalia Valverde Jatobá
Read the Portuguese version
Read the Spanish version

The Women’s Penitentiary of the Capital (PFC), in the northern zone of São Paulo, currently has more than 500 women. Among them are immigrants who, most of the time, have been arrested for involvement in drug trafficking. And part of these stories can be known by the book “Nosotras”, recently released by the publisher Pluralidades.

Written by journalist Ana Luiza Voltolini, the book tells the story of three immigrant women imprisoned in the PFC and the reasons that got them there. In addition, it allows a zoom in on a series of issues that permeate the daily lives of women in conflict with the law.

The book is the fruit of Voltolini’s experience at the Instituto Terra, Trabalho e Cidadania (ITTC), a human rights organization that fights for the eradication of gender inequality, the guarantee of rights, and the fight against mass imprisonment.

In the five years in which he worked for the NGO, Voltolini got to know the history and the reality of several women in the fulfillment of their sentences through visits to female penitentiaries and in the service provided at the institute.

Among listens and inspections

The Women’s Penitentiary in the Capital runs alongside the old Carandiru penitentiary complex, which later gave way to the Youth Park. In the PFC there are 564 women in prison, among them many immigrants of various nationalities – which vary, in most cases, according to the political and socioeconomic contexts of the countries of origin.

Despite the concentration of different nationalities in Brazilian penitentiaries, people from certain countries of origin end up being more watched, a consequence of the institutions’ structural racism.

The book, written in 2015 and published in 2020, tells the story of three Bolivians, Angélica, Aurora and Domitila, in the PFC and the reasons that led them there. The fictitious names preserve their true identities and pay homage to three of the five women who overthrew the military dictatorship in Bolivia in 1978. Among them, Domitila Barrios, who was arrested pregnant, tortured and lost her child in prison.

However, according to the author, people of certain nationalities are usually more watched when entering Brazil.  “The structuring racism of our institutions, which puts under suspicion mainly people from African countries and, among Latin American countries, Bolivia” she writes in the book’s introduction.

A journalist by training, Voltolini found himself without his instruments of profession when he entered the penitentiary, where he had his little blocks and his body searched. In this way, in order to be able to tell these stories, the author had to decorate them. The process, according to her, “was not understood as a mechanical movement, but as its origin defines: the act of putting into the heart.

Three stories, three mothers

In addition to nationality, the three women have in common the fact that they have to deal with the issue of motherhood in a judicial prison situation.

The first story told is that of Angélica, who agreed to come to Brazil and then take a flight to Georgia, where her father was imprisoned for trafficking. Father and daughter saw in these trips the opportunity to end the debts the family was accumulating. Angelica made the trip pregnant and was picked up at the airport, like most of the immigrants arrested in São Paulo. Her sentence of 6 years, 1 month and 15 days of imprisonment was given by a judge who never found her.

To prevent her son from being taken to a shelter for not having any acquaintances in Brazil who could care for him, Angelica filed for house arrest with the help of the Public Defender’s Office (DPU) and the ITTC. The judge, however, denied her the right, claiming that Angelica was a “threat to public order” and that she would be putting her own son at risk, as she could be co-opted by the “criminal organization” again.

At birth, Joshua stayed with his mother until he was 6 months old when, through the Bolivian Consulate, Angelica’s mother went to get him. The father of the boy, despite living in Brazil, gives up paternity and never helps mother, son and Luana, the other daughter of the couple.

The second story told is that of Aurora. Unlike Angelica, Aurora was arrested on a bus in Corumbá and discovered the pregnancy when she was already in prison. Because she is pregnant, she has the right to take care of her child outside of jail. At 5 months of pregnancy, she awaits a court decision.

Domitila is the third woman portrayed in the book. After months in prison, she got in touch with her family in Cochabamba and discovered that her children had been taken to a shelter because of her mother’s deteriorating health. As for her husband, he was unemployed and without help in the house, this was the last time they spoke.

When she was arrested at the Tupi Paulista Women’s Penitentiary, she already knew she was pregnant, but the penitentiary’s medical care took time to attend to and understand her. After hours of waiting for childbirth and several moments of neglect and mistreatment, Jeremy was born. Domitila requested a transfer to PFC when she learned that the unit had a Maternal-Child Pavilion, which all mothers in prison occupy with their sons and daughters.

After more than a year in prison, Domitila was granted the right to care for her son outside the penitentiary. Mother and baby have been living in a Shelter House, where with other Bolivians they have “felt a little more at home”.

Maternity behind bars

However, what happened to Domitila, despite being law, is not common. “Honestly, this right is quite denied to all imprisoned mother women, whether they are Brazilian or migrants. Generally, judges deny it on the basis of subjective criteria, which are not in the law, and which often have sexist and racist motivations behind them,” Voltolini commented in conversation with MigraMundo.

On the other hand, much of what has been reported in these three stories is the reality of many other women prisoners. Speaking of the father of Angelica’s children who never paid a pension or took over raising the children, but who always stressed that she was “a bad woman, a bad mother”, the author is exposing the abandonment and harsh criticism suffered by these women

“When a woman goes to jail, she is not only judged for the crime she supposedly committed, but for being a woman committing a crime,” observed the author.

“When a man goes to jail, it’s usually women who deal with what’s left on the outside: mothers, wives, daughters. When a woman goes to jail, precisely for this “extra” trial, of being a woman committing a crime, it is other women who have to cope, be it the mother, a neighbor, a friend. The visiting lines from male prisons are usually longer than the female ones. For migrant women, this is more difficult because most of them were in transit when they were arrested here in Brazil, so the families are in the country of origin,” she explained in conversation.

“For me, when we overlap issues of gender, race and class it gets even worse” she added.

Literature as a complaint

In conversation with MigraMundo about his book, Voltolini talked about the intention to leave traditional journalism for a while and tell the stories from the unique point of view of women who have suffered such violence. For her, seeking impartiality in this context through interviews with the institutional actors responsible for such violence would be a new violence, since these women are always silenced or discredited.

The intention was to report what these three women wanted to be told and, at the same time, to denounce the naturalization of the violence that exists from the very existence of prison and to try to discuss the reasons that allow it. “What is her social function today, if not another form of genocide of a population systematically marginalized, whether migrant, Latino, black, LGBTIQA+?” she asked.

“This book will hardly directly change the reality it tries to transpose into words. However, it is still a registration mechanism for other people to get to know them, to recognize themselves, and a denunciation space for those who may also try to change the course of these and other trajectories,” he writes in the epilogue of his book.

Situation of women’s prisons in Brazil

According to Infopen 2019- National Penitentiary Information Survey – at the end of the year, 36,929 women were incarcerated in the country, the equivalent of 4.94% of the Brazilian prison population of 748,009 people. The number guarantees the country the position of third largest prison population in the world, behind only the United States and China respectively.

While more than half of men are in prison for crimes against property, 50.94% of women in prison serve time for drug involvement.

As for the African women arrested in Brazil, the most frequent nationalities are South African, Angolan and Kenyan respectively. As for the American prisoners, 37.34% are Bolivian, in second place, with less than half, comes the Venezuelans, representing 17.2% of the prisoners.

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