Cultural activities in Brazilian jails these days include film screenings, live bands and libraries with shelves packed with books — part of an attempt to combat the consequences of the appalling living conditions in prison."So far, I think we’re managing to limit some of the damage. Because we know that we’re fighting a very cruel system," rapper Marcelo Yuka, who likes to define art as "a mirror of society."
(IPS) – Cultural activities in Brazilian jails these days include film screenings, live bands and libraries with shelves packed with books — part of an attempt to combat the consequences of the appalling living conditions in prison.
"So far, I think we’re managing to limit some of the damage. Because we know that we’re fighting a very cruel system," rapper Marcelo Yuka, who likes to define art as "a mirror of society," told IPS.
Yuka rejects the idea that this sort of project contributes to resocialising convicts. "But if we get an inmate to read, if we just awaken that much in him, there’ll be a greater chance that when he gets out of prison he’ll have another frame of reference for his life."
In the songwriters view, resocialisation is about "putting the prisoner back into society," without first asking oneself, "what kind of society? The same society that put him in jail in the first place?"
Official figures indicate that there are over 420,000 people in the prison system in Brazil, crowded into 1,052 facilities with a total capacity for 262,000 inmates. The overcrowding and appalling conditions have led to countless prison riots.
Yuka said that although it is really too soon to talk about results, in the Rio de Janeiro jails where the cultural project has begun to be implemented, riots and violent deaths have declined.
"The way I see it, what we have to do is fill the spaces most affected by violence with education and culture, instead of fighting violence with more violence, because that puts ordinary people at risk in the crossfire," he said.
"If we manage to spark an awareness of a different point of view in a prisoner through a film he watches, we’ve already changed society a tiny fraction," he said, adding that "people forget that prisoners will eventually be let out, and they may come out worse people than they went in."
"I think that to re-enter society, they need to come back to another ambience, with the tools to cope differently with society, otherwise just as they first went to jail, they’ll be sent there over and over again," he said.
Yuka has always been an activist for peace. Six years ago he was left paraplegic when he was shot six times, going to the aid of a woman who was being mugged. From his wheelchair he continues his social activism, which began with the critical lyrics he wrote for his first band, Rappa, and now extends to a number of cultural activities, as well as his outspoken social criticism.
"I think learning is easier through pain, and makes a deeper impression. But for that very reason, I prefer to learn through love. It’s a very different way. The most important learning I’ve done in my life was not through the shooting, but through the sensitivity I’ve always had as an artist," he said.
The Rio songwriter is now the head of a band called F.U.R.T.O. ("Theft", an acronym for Urban Front for Organised Work). Far from wanting vengeance for the crime that left him in a wheelchair, he says it has deepened his conceptual thinking about how to combat violence.
"If I could make them pay for that crime, it would be just," he said. "But I believe we have to combat violence in a much more modern and intelligent way, giving a second chance to people in the poorest strata of society, because the reality is that our country is extremely unjust, socially and economically."
He puts these ideas into action through BOCA, a non-governmental organisation which among other things supports the initiative of another songwriter, Rafael Kalil, to have music groups perform in prisons, in what is called the Caravan of Freedom and Expression.
To speak of "freedom of expression" would be untrue, said Kalil, because there is no freedom of expression in jails. That’s why he calls his project "Freedom AND Expression," he told IPS.
The idea of taking live bands to prisons occurred to Kalil when he felt the need "to do something more than protest through our lyrics. We needed something more incisive, and that’s when we decided to go and perform in jails," he said.
At first they just played and left straight away, but after their departure "the prison routine went on." So Kalil and his group decided to start leaving books and raising funds to expand the library collections.
According to the creators of the initiative, they are not pursuing grand goals, let alone miracles, but in political terms what they are trying to do is very similar.
For instance, the musicians have not yet managed to bring together members of rival drug gangs for a prison performance. Members of different gangs are housed separately to avoid deadly conflicts. But they have won some other small victories.
Yuka emphasised, for example, that they have shown movies that portrayed one particular drug gang, to a prison audience of members of a rival mafia. "It’s a slow process, but we’ll get there," he said enthusiastically.
He is committed to struggling against a system that he perceives as being cruel, both "inside and out of the prisons."
Yuka prefers not to talk of urban warfare, because the conflict being fought out in his home state of Rio de Janeiro is "a war without an ideological basis, a war for territory, power and money." He also says that culture is a way of combating these "groundless, empty" wars.
"Is that utopic?" Yuka asks himself, before concluding "I believe that by persevering, some utopias can become reality."