Page last updated at 16:05 GMT, Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Beauty contests in Rio de Janeiro prisons

By Lucy Ash
Crossing Continents, BBC Radio 4

As I show my ID and hand in my mobile phone at the entrance, I hear a low rumbling like distant thunder.

Simone Vilela, prison governor, and Diona Normando Pires, the winner of Miss Talavera Bruce
The Talavera Bruce beauty contest helps boost inmates' self-esteem

The sound gets louder and increasingly frantic as a guard escorts me through a series of gates and a maze of corridors.

I am in Talavera Bruce, Rio de Janeiro's only maximum security prison for women.

It sits inside the Bangu penitentiary complex, once notorious for riots. For a moment I wonder if I am heading straight into one.

But inside the main courtyard, I see where the noise is coming from. Three rows of inmates are hammering away - in perfect time - to drums hung around their necks.

Instructors wearing bright orange t-shirts and baseball hats blow ear-splitting whistles and shout commands. Every now and then, the women jump, yell and wave their drumsticks in the air.


This is Afro Reggae's "cultural rebellion" - a percussion project for prisons and youth detention centres.

Rio remand prisoners get capoeira lessons

Today they are giving a concert for visitors including relatives and prison officials.

Afro Reggae is a campaigning music collective. It was formed as a protest movement after Rio police killed 21 people in a favela or shanty town 15 years ago.

Barbara is one of the drummers. She has short, bleached blonde hair and a hard face that seems at odds with her dazzling smile.

"Hitting that drum as hard as I can makes me feel better," she says. "I get rid of all my anger and my bad feelings and then I am much more relaxed."

"The percussion workshops on Tuesdays are the highlight of the week," says a guard.

"They seem to attract some of our most disruptive prisoners who might otherwise have been sent into solitary confinement because of their bad behaviour," she says.

As she is talking, I catch sight of a man armed with two aerosol cans. He is spraying graffiti onto one of the prison walls and nobody tries to stop him.

It turns out that he, too, is part of Afro Reggae's cultural rebellion. His tag reads "Re Socialise To Conquer the Future" in big, brightly coloured letters the length of the prison courtyard.

Afro Reggae instructors teach inmates at Talavera Bruce drum routines
The drum lessons are popular with both the inmates and the guards

Meanwhile prisoners in evening gowns are strutting down a red catwalk as a sound system belts out pop anthems and funk music.

Dione Normando Pires is crowned Miss TB (Talavera Bruce) and presented with her prize - a television set.

Simone Vilela, the governor of the prison, says that the projects boost the women's self esteem.

"These teach them important lessons which can help outside the prison walls," she says. "They understand the value of teamwork and they learn how to set themselves goals and how to strive for them."


If the situation for Rio's convicted prisoners is not as bad as it was a few years ago, the plight of remand prisoners is desperate.

The number of people being held in custody awaiting trial has almost quadrupled over the last decade. This has massively stretched the capacity of the already overcrowded Brazilian penal system.

Polinter de Neves police lock-up
Remand conditions have deteriorated as prisoner numbers have swelled

In Rio, more than 4,000 people are now being held in 17 police lock-ups or improvised detention centres. These lack even the most basic hygiene and ventilation.

In the Polinter de Neves station, 800 men are squeezed into 10 small cells in a low ceilinged building, originally built as a stable for police horses.

Inside it feels like an oven. The prisoners are drenched with sweat and the temperature often exceeds 55 degrees centigrade.

Rafael Khalil, a Rio musician, has spent the last three years visiting these police lock-ups in an attempt to make the lives of the men held there a little more bearable.

'Keep sane'

Khalil and his friends teach guitar and have set up a network of small libraries staffed by volunteers with donated books. The initiative is called the Caravan of Freedom and Expression.

"At first the authorities weren't convinced," he admits. "But after our visits, the inmates were much calmer, there were fewer fights and they started calling us to find out when we were coming back."

Ana, the lock-up boss, certainly seems pleased when Rafael steps through the door.

She takes us downstairs, where a group of men are singing and dancing in a big circle as part of a lesson in capoeira, a unique Brazilian art form combining martial arts and dance.

Ana has a difficult job and admits the music and dance help to "keep everybody sane". She claps enthusiastically at the end of the capoeira class, and tells the prisoners that every week they are becoming more skilled and agile.

On the drive back, I ask Rafael Khalil what his musician friends in the upscale Rio neighbourhoods think about him visiting police stations four or five times a week.

"They think I am crazy."

Crossing Continents: Rio Law is broadcast on the BBC World Service on 24 December.

You can also listen to Crossing Continents on the BBC iPlayer or subscribe to the podcast .

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