In Brazil, children go to prison from the age of 12. Tragically, most of them are back in prison within a month of being released. After many years of working in São Paulo’s youth prisons, I wanted something radically different to help these boys. I longed to help them think and behave differently so that they would stop reoffending. So I started praying about how we could reach them in a better way.
A new approach
Before I went to Brazil I worked as a professional actress and drama teacher. I started wondering if I could use drama with the boys. I read two books: one about restorative justice and another about psychodrama (a type of therapy where participants act out different scenarios to gain insight into their problems). After further study, I decided to put restorative justice and psychodrama together. I created a new project called ‘Breaking the chains’, working with a team of professionals at the youth prison.
We started the work in a unit for young offenders who had committed serious crimes – murder, kidnapping, bank robberies, armed burglaries. They had been in prison multiple times.
Some of the families are so poor that when the boy comes out of prison, he will steal again just to put food on the table.
The programme involves three elements. For at least 12 weeks we run weekly psychodrama sessions with a group of about 10 boys who are nearing the end of their sentence. During the same period, someone from our team visits each boy individually to provide counselling. The third part of the programme is working with the families. Some of the families are so poor that when the boy comes out of prison, he will steal again just to put food on the table. So we try to assist the family – for instance, by helping the mother find work.
The results from the programme are amazing. To give just one example, we had a boy who was a real hardened criminal. He would steal up to ten motorbikes a day. In one psychodrama session, he played the part of the owner of a motorbike, sitting at the traffic lights. Two of his mates acted the part of robbers wanting to steal his bike, pointing their imaginary guns at his head.
I told them to freeze in that position and asked the boy, ‘What are you thinking right now? What are you feeling?’ He said, ‘You cannot steal my bike! I worked hard to buy this bike! It was not easy for me to get it, but it is my bike and you cannot steal it!’ At that moment he suddenly understood what he was doing to other people every day.
And he changed. After he left the youth prison he trained as a barber and started a salon in his grandmother’s garage. Over time, he saved money and opened a proper salon with a friend. Now you have to wait four hours for a haircut because there are so many customers. And he teaches hairdressing for three different charities every week.
It was the psychodrama that made all the difference for that boy. I could have sat with him for two years and said, ‘It is really wrong to rob people at gunpoint,’ and it would have had no effect. When we evaluated the programme, we found that as long as boys completed at least 10 sessions, 80 per cent of them did not reoffend. Normally the reoffending rate is almost 100 per cent. That is quite a victory!
This article is from Footsteps Magazine 104, which explores the theme of prisons.