Neusa das Dores Pereira, a lesbian mother and leader of the black women's movement, is bringing a marginalized group–women and youth in prisons–to the attention of her community. Her methodology fosters good relationships between inmates and prison workers, reduces recidivism, helps offenders reintegrate into their families and the labor market, and improves the human rights situation.
The New Idea
Neusa's idea stems from recognizing that the problems of Brazilian prisons are not only restricted to the jails, but also involve the periods before and after imprisonment. Measures taken during the period of imprisonment are largely palliatives, failing to address the underlying causes of criminal behavior. Neusa carries out preventative measures designed to raise inmate's self-esteem and foster appreciation and awareness-building activities with prison guards. This work leads to a less punitive and more constructive environment in the prisons. It also includes professional courses that help the prisoner reenter the labor market. Thus the project is changing relations both inside and outside the prison walls. Through CEDOICOM (Center for Documentation of Women's Issues)–an organization Neusa founded in 1994 with the goals of combating all kinds of oppression and discrimination against women and addressing issues related to gender, race, and poverty–she is developing the program "Project Family Awareness, Be Prepared!" (Projeto Família Consciente, Previne-se!). Through a comprehensive project in women's prisons, she works with all the parties involved, including prisoners, guards, families, and the Rio de Janeiro Penitentiary System Department. The organization also tries to build spaces for reflection for inmates, takes political action on behalf of lesbian mothers, carries out research studies, provides documentary and advisory services, monitors and suggests public policies, and conducts social and educational courses and activities that meet the interests of these marginalized women. Neusa tries to create the structural conditions necessary to prevent systematic violence against women and contribute to their reintegration into society.
Prisons in Brazil have become the subject of extensive discussion among human rights groups. Overcrowding, drugs, violence, and the lack of psychological counseling have resulted in increasing chaos in the Brazilian prison system in recent years. The situation seems to be worst for female prisoners: there is a 65 percent rate of recidivism among women in Brazilian prisons; among men the figure is 27 percent.
Neusa focuses on two key features of prison life. First, the often troubled relationship between the prison staff and the prisoners makes life more difficult for both parties, giving both parties an incentive to better their relations. Guards tend to abuse power, and prisoners tend to resist the authority of guards. Second, at the end of their terms, women leave the prisons with low self-esteem, often wanting to return to the jail since they have lost their links with the "other side" and become an embarrassment to their families and society as a whole. Often a return to prison seems the best alternative for these women.
Neusa began working with inmates in women's prisons in 2001, when experts met with the inmates to discuss women's health issues. This was followed by a respectful and wide-ranging debate on subjects like the prevention of STDs and HIV/AIDS, gender vulnerability, different forms of violence, drug abuse, sexuality, and ethnicity. Neusa used newspapers, primary readers, and explanatory leaflets as support materials.
Complementing these activities, Neusa added a new activity which had a substantial impact: professional courses on appliance repair, electrician's work, and plumbing, activities typically seen as the domain of men. In addition, Neusa reached an agreement with the Rio de Janeiro Penitentiary System Department that for every three days of attendance at these sessions prisoners would have a one-day reduction in their sentence.
The sessions also included courses in bodily awareness that addressed the psychological toll of confinement, helping women see the prison as a barrier to be overcome, a place to be avoided. The aim is for inmates to see themselves and their situation realistically, as people who have done wrong in the eyes of society, but are not necessarily bad people. Prisoners need to come to terms with their past bad acts and move on.
As an innovative approach in the Brazilian prison system, Neusa's work with exclusively female guards required considerable attention. Neusa knows that a good relationship with these women will go a long way to improving life for the prisoners. As a result, she has developed two annual courses in which guards share ideas, attend speeches, and discuss various matters. Neusa claims that following the start of the training courses, the relationship between guards and prisoners has improved considerably, reducing the obstacles to inmates participating in the course.
The work with families is carried out in partnership with the Ministry of Health. On visiting days, members of the project are in the prisons to distribute material and talk to the families about preventing illness, helping the inmates after their prison term is over, and preventing recidivism.
The project is currently active in three prisons, and negotiations are taking place for further expansion. Neusa also works in schools and churches that have programs to help prevent young black women from turning to crime and educate them regarding health issues. There are approximately 990 inmates involved in the project. However, Neusa is aware that there is still a lot of work ahead, since there are around 8,000 women in Brazilian prisons.
Neusa has been expanding her work with inmates to other states like Minas Gerais and Rio Grande do Sul, where nonprofit organizations will replicate her model. She has also created a reference center to support academic and social research, fostering the documentation and analysis of the conditions of women and women prisoners. Research underway will concentrate mainly on the state of women and teenage girls in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Neusa is planning to create a center for women, a social and cultural space (with video rooms, seminars, a café, and a bookshop) where all women can meet. She is currently raising funds to make this project a reality. As a parliamentary adviser on the drafting of laws, Neusa is also trying to ensure the approval by the Rio de Janeiro City Council of a law giving women in prison the right to conjugal visits.
Neusa was born and raised in the city of Rio de Janeiro. As a child, she witnessed the fight for respect and sexual equality thanks to her mother, a community leader in the Bairro Lins do Vasconcelos district who defended women who had suffered violence from their husbands, giving these women shelter in her own home.
Neusa started studying social sciences at college but during the military dictatorship she was declared "persona non grata," which made it difficult for her to become involved in social activities or find employment. It made it impossible for her to continue with her social science studies. She was also unable to continue with a psychology course she had started, since her grant was cancelled when her status was discovered. Neusa aimed to get the higher educational qualification necessary to become a teacher, pursuing her studies with even greater zeal. She eventually graduated with a degree in French, Portuguese, and Literature. Becoming a teacher gave her the opportunity to defend and fight for the rights of women. From an early age, she had learned that race and social origin were significant factors in determining where and how oppression against women occurred.
After graduating, Neusa earned her living by giving lessons to children in two contrasting areas of Rio de Janeiro: Leblon and Cidade de Deus. She noticed that, despite the social differences (rich and poor), these children had something in common. Both sets of children were abandoned by their families, and they did not know what was happening to them as their parents needed to work and carry out other activities outside the home. She initiated the Zumbi Project, which concentrated on the racial question in these two schools. It was at that time that she started taking part in racial movements.
At the end of the 1970s, she was the leader of the Teachers Union of Rio de Janeiro state, always seeking to participate in movements for the rights of blacks. During the 1980s, she increased her involvement in social movements, assuming leadership roles in various activities of the feminist and black movements. In 1988, after the first National Meeting of Black Women, she was elected the Rio de Janeiro representative for the National Coordination of the Black Woman and was reelected in 1991. Neusa's status as a leader of the black women's movement and a lesbian makes her quite attuned to the plight of the socially marginalized. Neusa created the CEDOICOM, in 1994. One of her priorities is to influence public policies, an area where Neusa already has had two successes: approval of Law 2485 of September 12, 1996, which prohibits discrimination against lesbians, gays, transsexuals, and bisexuals in the city of Rio de Janeiro, as well as the insertion of a clause in the Pension Fund law of December 18, 2001 that guarantees the inclusion of partners of the same sex as dependents of civil servants for purposes of social security benefits. It should be noted that the two laws are on the statute book and have gone from the local to the national level.