Art and the population deprived of liberty. Illustration by visual artist, comic book artist and zine artist Line Lemos.
Illustration by visual artist, comic book artist and zine artist Line Lemos.

Fresh out of the twilight zone of the pandemic, the “art world” resumes activities suspended in this unusual period: new fairs are planned, biennials with previously upheaval calendars finally see the light of day, and galleries take up the expensive business again the face. Stagnant, however, in this movement towards the newest normal, is the debate about the presence of art and culture in the prison system. There is also no discussion about the public culture policy aimed at this population at the national level, but perhaps this fact has less to do with the interests of the “art world” and more with the reality that such a policy, in fact, does not exist. In any case, what roles can art and culture play in a scenario that is outright considered as an “Unconstitutional State of Things” by the Federal Supreme Court?

Em Learning, Rehabilitation and the Arts in Prisons: A Scottish Case Study[1], Tett and colleagues report that research conducted in North America, New Zealand and the United Kingdom shows that participation in artistic projects within prisons can bring about significant changes, such as improving relationships between inmates, with staff and with their families; improved self-esteem and self-confidence; development of social and communication skills; and encouraging joint work and mutual assistance. In the study, some of the participants reported that their integration into art projects helped them to recall happy memories of the past, positive feelings that researchers link to a strengthening of inmates' confidence to participate in other learning activities. This set of actions could also provide refuges within the prison system and strengthen the individual's ability to deal with a hostile environment, in addition to, in certain scenarios, helping to prepare for their return to life in freedom.

Transporting these results to the Brazilian context, is it possible to verify the implementation of similar programs? O Report of cultural activities in the prison system, commissioned by the National Penitentiary Department in conjunction with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 2016, reports: “In general, such activities take place through the personal efforts of prison administration managers and/or partner institutions of civil society with small-scale actions subject to interruptions and discontinuities”. So that “although there are international and national regulations on the guarantee of cultural rights to the population deprived of liberty, it is observed that cultural production in the Brazilian prison system occurs in a punctual, fragmented and disarticulated way from public cultural policies at national levels. and state”. Thus, not all Brazilian prisons have the execution of these activities, and it is estimated that 90% of the 622.202 Brazilians in state custody do not have access to them.

For the units where cultural activities take place, they focus on the areas of crafts, books, reading and libraries, visual arts (drawing, painting, photography), music (singing/choir, guitar, flute, bands), theater, dance, audiovisual (film exhibition) and capoeira, although other expressions have been mentioned such as communication (Radio, Fanzines), Hip-Hop and Digital Art. However, it is necessary to emphasize an important limiting factor, which is the insufficiency of available and adequate physical spaces for their realization in prison establishments, causing art and culture actions to be carried out in classrooms, sun patios, sports courts. and, in some more precarious cases, in the cells themselves.

On the subject, researcher André Luzzi, from the Laboratory of Penal Policy Management (LabGEPEN), linked to UnB, draws attention that, “despite the budget of the penitentiary administration secretariat being one of the largest in the state of São Paulo, it only dedicates 2% of this budget for social reintegration, all actions for the inclusion of families, regularization of documents, psychosocial care, locating and directing people to job vacancies, including cultural issues”. According to the researcher, “it is clear that the priority is not the preparation for freedom and the actions that promote social rights in Art. 6th. of the Federal Constitution. What we also need is to expand the destination of the resource, it exists and it is not little”, in line with the speech of Claudia Aratangy, educator, lawyer and coordinator of the Center for Workshops, Training and Campaigns at OAB-SP: “Everything concerning improving prison conditions and the lives of incarcerated people is placed at the bottom of the list. I think the obstacle is, in fact, a political will”.

The lawyer faces with optimism, however, the recent changes brought about by Resolution No. 391 of the CNJ, of May 10, 2021. With it, other activities in art and culture can be understood for the remission of penalty - reading was already considered. Prior to Resolution, the report Technical subsidies for the elaboration of guidance on the remission of the sentence through cultural activities – a document also produced by the DEPEN/UNDP partnership in 2016 – already indicated that “to understand the activities in art and culture in the prison system for the purpose of remission of the sentence is to understand that cultural actions are a privileged place for the promotion of ethical values, of solidarity and cooperation, citizenship, recognition and respect for differences, re-signification of individual and collective trajectories, integral and human formation and appreciation of life”. Aratangy points out that Resolution No. 391 also extends the reference to foreign people, non-literate people, and gives the possibility that not only the writing of the review is considered as proof of achievement, when it comes to reading.

The report in question emphasizes that on an equal footing is the opening of the prison system to civil society and especially to agents in the field of art and culture, “whether through the action of different cultural forums, state and municipal councils of culture, higher education institutions, the network of cultural facilities, culture points, popular educators, among other actors”. Exploring this possibility, Aratangy says that the OAB-SP itself has been trying to sew some partnerships; Santa Maria – a textbook foundation that has a reading project –, for example, will support a training workshop so that incarcerated mothers can be readers for their own children.

Another case of society-prison interaction through culture is the set of actions developed by the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, which, since 2017, has a partnership with the Coordination of Social Reintegration and Citizenship of the Secretary of Penitentiary Administration of the State of São Paulo – SAP to work with the adult population deprived of liberty. As a result of this collaboration, workshops emerged, both with people in a semi-open regime and who provide services within the secretariat itself (later resulting in exhibition), as well as in some penitentiary progression centers. Before the pandemic, Pinacoteca started a process, interrupted by the health crisis, in which serigraphy workshops would be developed with people in semi-open regime who provide services at SAP; the material from these meetings would generate a traveling exhibition, with plans to visit three prison units in the capital of São Paulo, along with the mediation of the authors of the works, in addition to a catalog.

Although the plan has not been resumed so far, the Pinacoteca intends to carry it out in the future. In addition, the museum usually receives visits from the adult population deprived of liberty as well as young inmates at Fundação CASA, a work that has been going on for 15 years and that now continues in a hybrid way, attending to face-to-face visits, but also carrying out virtual tours to the units in the interior, which, due to the distance, would hardly be able to bring young people to visit the Museum in São Paulo.
Gabriela Aidar, Coordinator of Inclusive Educational Programs at the Núcleo de Ação Educativa, says that it is important to have a specific approach so that these audiences feel “welcome, welcomed and participants in this universe because, in fact, at first glance it is very diverse. , very different, very different from what their reality is”.

“First, we establish partnerships to understand the processes that are being developed in the organizations of origin, so the visit to the museum has to dialogue in some way with what is already being worked on in these places. From these contacts we thought of some itineraries that might be of interest to the group. 'What are we going to talk about? What are we going to show these groups that might be relevant here at the museum?' For each group, we build particular educational paths”, says Aidar, reinforcing the participatory nature of the visits, with constant dialogue:

“For those who are deprived of their liberty, being able to speak their mind, give their opinion, be heard, valued, considered, is no small thing. Freedom of expression, in this case, is not something secondary at all. These subjective impacts are very difficult to measure, but for us, they are the main ones of all these actions that we develop with these groups.”

According to Wellington Araújo, artistic manager of Fundação CASA, “there is an undeniable relationship that is established with artistic-cultural work, allowing the idea that making art as something only possible for those born with the 'gift' to be questioned. This opens up possibilities, not for becoming an artist with public recognition, but for the knowledge and skills immanent in artistic making to be valid for other forms of existence in our lives”. Visitations, according to him, have as a first step to overcome the existing symbolic barrier, allowing access to the physical space of the present place with his body. The visits by adolescents, mediated by the educational teams of the cultural spaces, also pass through Itaú Cultural, Catavento, Afrobrasil Museum, MIS, MIS Experience, Paço das Artes and others less frequently. “Contact with the different is always enriching, it is not monochromatic, but colorful, it allows for a richer observation of what was not perceived before”, says Araújo.

The visits, debates and workshops, aimed at the adolescents of the CASA Foundation or adults in state custody, contribute to “challenge and constructively break the negative identities that they had internalized and that they felt was sometimes communicated to them by others within and outside the prison system”, as stated by Tett et al., in the research cited at the beginning of this article. The authors point out, by the way, that in contemporary theories about social reintegration and crime desistance, contact with society is fundamental. In this sense, the exhibition of their artwork and crafts, the performance of plays, poetry or prose readings, music performances, among other public performances, offer people deprived of their liberty the chance to exchange with the community, comprising “ an important form of ritual in which an esteemed audience recognizes and celebrates achievements and changes”, so “part of the function of these performances is that they confirm, not only for the audience, but also for the participants, the authenticity of their performance.
These experiences have the potential to stimulate the nascent belief in the possibility of change and thus help to build new identities, social networks and contacts in which these new identities can be inserted. Furthermore, these performances can help individuals to imagine different possible futures.”

From this, it is valid to consider - in addition to the symbolic (related to the imaginary, artistic expressions and cultural practices) and citizen (culture as a right and importance in contexts of social vulnerability) dimensions - the economic dimension of culture, as a generator of growth, employment and income.

What's to come

Once released, is it possible for ex-prisoners to continue this stimulus – of artistic and cultural knowledge and production – initiated during the projects carried out in prisons? According to the National Penitentiary Department (Depen), in 2014, 75% of those incarcerated had not completed high school (an indicator of low income); if these people want to continue the studies and contact with art they had while they were in detention, it is plausible to suppose that they would have to balance study and work, whose achievement is even more arduous when one carries a stigma such as that of ex-prisoners.

In the study The Challenge of the Prisoner's Social Reintegration: A Survey in Prison Establishments, published by IPEA in 2015, participants were interviewed in the administration of the prison system, in the elaboration and execution of programs, projects and actions aimed at social reintegration, actors in the justice system, in addition to the inmates themselves (whose identities are respected by the researchers, who decided to keep them secret). “None of the interviewees disregarded this stigma surrounding prison, to which they attributed one of the main causes of criminal recidivism. Generally, society did not offer space for social success for the prisoner, considering him unfit to live in society, treating him with prejudice and discrimination, which generated revolt, as they considered the labels coming from outside to be unfair”, the study records.

“I'm pretty pissed off. I don't want any more crime, I don't want anything else. But society is not prepared to receive an ex-prisoner. And it's hard… When we go through the system, doors close, especially job opportunities, they really close. Having a criminal record is complicated, society doesn't want to know”. This is the testimony of one of the interviewees, sentenced to a closed regime, which can be complemented by the speech of an agent from the same penitentiary complex: “So, can the prisoner be resocialized? You can, but in order for him not to return to the prison system, he has to have opportunities out there”.

Is it eventually possible to free yourself from this stigma? As Marina Dias, lawyer and executive director of the Institute for the Defense of the Right to Defense (IDDD): “The stigma remains, it is very difficult to block this information, so unfortunately it is something that ends up tormenting the graduate, often for the rest of his life”. Even with the Criminal Rehabilitation process - which makes the criminal records of those who have already served their sentence confidential to the civil sphere -, there are still occurrences of access to this information by entities that do not concern the judicial sphere. “That's why we need to reflect on this machine for crushing people that is the prison system”, he adds.

Finally, the discussion on cultural policy aimed at the population deprived of liberty necessarily goes through the social counterpart once these individuals have served their sentence and returned to freedom, so that they are not denied the possibility of also enjoying the economic dimension of culture. Thus, the most immediate and tangible reflection is that agents in the art world must be charged, if not an involvement, at least an interest in artists who are passing through or who have already passed through the prison system.

In a survey carried out by the report, 42 art galleries that participate in the largest national fairs were asked if they could point out emerging artists, represented by them and/or who had already exhibited or sold works at the gallery: 80% responded that they did not recognize artists with such a trajectory or not being aware of such a history among the artists represented and/or whose works had already been sold by the gallery, while 20% did not provide an answer on the question.

Although no direct relationship is made between this absence and the ills of the stigma imposed on the ex-prisoners, it is opportune to question whether it is not past time for the market and institutions to begin an active search for artists released from the prison system or to facilitate their inclusion in the same. spaces.

[1] – Lyn Tett, Kirstin Anderson, Fergus Mcneill, Katie Overy & Richard Sparks (2012) Learning, rehabilitation and the arts in prisons: a Scottish case study, Studies in the Education of Adults, 44:2, 171-185
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