By Bishop George Marskell, S.F.M.
It is Holy Saturday afternoon. Aquiles stretches a brawny tattooed arm through the bars of the cell. He is the first of four prisoners in the six-by-four-foot cell of the small city jail to shake my hand. There are four cells with four to five prisoners in each: murderers, rapists, armed robbers, extortionists, drug dealers and drug users; sons of God who have gone wrong.
I don't know the charges against Aquiles, and I don't ask. He is one of two prisoners who are not local men. I ask if they want me to contact their families. Nata, one of Aquiles. cell mates, asks me to phone the priest in his parish in Maués The priest knows his mother.
Aquiles wants to write to his mother in the State of Acre and asks if I would mail his letter. I give him a lined notebook, an envelope and a ballpoint pen. A couple of days later I return to the jail to pick up Aquiles. mail to take to São Paulo, to the annual meeting of Brazilian Bishops, where I will meet Bishop Moacyr Grechi of Rio Branco Acre where Aquiles' family lives. He'll deliver the letter personally.
In early May, when I return from the Bishops' meeting, I accompany the pastoral team that visits the prisoners each Saturday afternoon. The men look forward to the hour or so that the team spends with them. Some of the prisoners are allowed out of the cells to be in the corridor. The men pray and sing. (There are no female prisoners.) They also bring up complaints: the septic tank is overflowing; the toilet doesn't work; it's been two weeks since they've been allowed in the yard to sit in the sun. They request medication and magazines, and ask us to visit their families, a wife or mother. Before we leave there is always cake and soft drinks which the team has brought along. Aquiles is well. Nata has news that his girlfriend has given birth to a baby girl.
A Letter From His Mother
On the next visit, Aquiles informs us that he has received a letter from his mother. It's the first news from home in many months. His mother wants him to begin reading the bible and to pray the rosary. The pastoral team gets him a pocket edition of the New Testament with the Psalms, and the rosary beads.
When I next see Aquiles, rosary around his neck, it's the beginning of July. He is in a different cell, located in a small building adjacent to the slightly larger, airier and better-lit cell block. He's separated from the rest of the men, except for his buddy Nata. They are in a kind of solitary confinement. The police suspect that one night, during a televised soccer game, the inmates in one cell had attempted to make a break. Aquiles and Nata were accused of being the leaders.
It's not a very pleasant set up they are in. I'm thinking that if anyone is considering a life of crime they should spend ten minutes, or even five minutes in this hole. Nata is particularly uneasy. He wants me to talk to the judge to allow him to see his girlfriend and the new baby. He has heard that they are in the city but have been denied permission to visit him. I talk to the judge before leaving on a pastoral visit downriver. He promises to review the case.
Now it's almost the end of July. I've just returned from the pastoral visit and drop in to visit the Sisters in the barrio or neighbourhood of São João at the far end of the city, close to a swamp. Sister Antonia fills me with news as well as coffee and cake. She informs me that one afternoon, about a week earlier, there was a lot of commotion in the area. The police killed an escaped prisoner not too far from the Sisters' house. He was hiding in the swamp. Another convict managed to escape, but was recaptured the following day in a neighbour's house. The people claim the dead man was a tall white man called "Macaxeira," Aquiles nickname.
The supervisor at the cemetery tells me that late one afternoon, the police arrived in the cemetery with an order for him to open a grave. A prisoner without family had died. He would be buried as an indigent. And so Aquiles was put into an unmarked grave just before dark, around six in the evening. No one to mourn him, pray for him, light candles or put flowers on his grave.
When I arrive at the jail there are two prisoners handcuffed to the fence, taking in the late afternoon sun. They tell me the police killed Macaxeira and recaptured Nata. Now I know who the other man was who had escaped with Aquiles.
The Chief of Police
The office of the chief of police is situated on the second floor of the jail. I am given a cool reception when I ask about Aquiles' death and why he was buried so quickly. The police give their version of what happened. A matter of kill or be killed. A policeman armed with guns kills a man carrying only a small paring knife.
I don't believe it. Are the police not trained to immobilize a criminal? There was a quick burial because the police have no record of the deceased family. I insist on visiting Nata. The chief tells me to come back the next day.
Nata and I are let into a small room with one door and a barred window. Nata sits on the floor in a corner furthest from the door. He tells me to stay by the window. Slowly and in a very low but nervous voice he tells me what happened. When he finishes, he cries.
He had decided to break out because he had heard that his baby was very sick with fever. He wanted to see her and hold her. Afterwards he would turn himself in. Aquiles wanted to go home. His version of how Aquiles died is different from the official police version, but he begs me to say nothing and to do nothing; he's afraid he might be killed, too. He asks for a hammock because his was used to bury Aquiles.
I return home and begin wondering how you tell a mother that the police have killed her son. I phone Bishop Moacyr in Rio Branco. He thinks I should write to her, but send the letter to him. He'll visit her and be there with the family when they read the letter.
The youth of the parish arrange to have a cross made for the grave. Celson paints and inscribes Aquiles. name and date of death. The prisoners' pastoral team visit the grave and attend Mass the afternoon the cross is placed over Aquiles' resting place. One woman thoughtfully brings flowers. Another carries a piece of white drawing board with the words:
Killed by the police
Stop the violence
May he rest in peace
After Aquiles death, our pastoral team continued to visit the prisoners. After one such visit, the prison chief asked to speak with me in his office where he made a startling request. He wanted to know if a group of prisoners could attend Mass in the parish church sometime. He would make all the arrangements with regard to transportation and security.
I readily agreed, but stressed to him that there would be no guns brought into the church.
The prisoners were excited about attending Mass with the community. Sadly, not all of the community shared their joy. There are some who do not agree with our prison ministry. To them, these men do not deserve our attention and service.
Just before Christmas last year, the prisoners were allowed to attend another community Mass at the parish church, and asked if they could also visit me at the rectory. They had heard that I was soon leaving for Canada because of an illness. They arrived in a large bus which was parked in front of the rectory.
The chief would not allow the men to come inside, so I boarded the bus to greet them. Speaking for the group, one of the prisoners said to me, "Just as you reach out to us in prison, we will pray for you to be well and to return to us again". His words resonated within me. And then I recalled the words of Jesus (Matthew 25:36-46):
"Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world... for I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me..."
All this time, in as much as we have been ministering to them, it seems that these imprisoned men have been ministering to us. Our wondrous God has many ways of redeeming all who desire God's forgiveness and love.