"The first value is the person. Even in prison"

In Brazilian prisons, the virus threatens to explode uncontrollably. A judge talks about how he has attempted to avoid the worst, and what drove him.

In recent days, with the very real possibility of getting infected with Coronavirus, here in Brazil and in my city, like in many other places, the authorities have taken decisions that affect many lives. I am a criminal judge and the health authorities reported to us their concern for prisoners throughout the prison system. For one very simple reason: we need to avoid large gatherings as much as possible in order to prevent contagion. But what can we do if there is overcrowding (twice as many people as the number of places available), where people live in subhuman conditions, without hygiene, without space, with little or no food, with little or no healthcare, and with no possibility of being in the open air? In addition, there are a considerable number of prisoners who belong to at-risk categories: elderly, chronically ill, people with HIV, tuberculosis, etc.

We had to make a quick decision before the whole environment became contaminated by the virus. I brought my team together and we started working on case studies. People’s lives were at stake. In the midst of the battle between the right to safety and the right to life, we are on the side of the latter. We cannot leave anyone behind. Every man has value. It does not matter if they are good or bad, old or young, a criminal or not. We had to avoid the escalation of a silent slaughter inside prisons due to a lack of proper sanitary conditions. In normal conditions, this lack already plagues us. During a pandemic, the worsening of such sanitary conditions could be very serious.

Faced with such circumstances, Fr. Julián Carrón’s letter from March 12 was and is illuminating, when he tells us: “In the coming weeks, each of us can see which attitude prevails in us: the willingness to adhere to the signs of the Mystery, to follow the provocations of reality, or letting ourselves be tossed about by any and every “solution”, proposal or explanation that can distract us from that provocation and avoid the resulting dizzying position.” There is no time for distractions. The enemy is fast and voracious. I had to follow the provocation of reality. Intercept it in this dramatic reality. Not instinctively, but following the directions of the health authorities. The guidelines, today, are the voice of Christ whispering in my ear and I cannot be indifferent to them.

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I have left debates about punitive or libertarian ideologies relating to prison and crime behind. For me, what was at stake was the value of the person, my person and the lives of others, of everyone who enters or leaves prison. So I spent more than 72 hours, non-stop, with my team, working remotely to examine all urgent cases and put them under house arrest, controlled by an electronic bracelet, giving everyone the possibility to live, to give and receive care in their families, reducing the possibility of spreading the virus. For this, I am grateful for the gift of having met the charism of Fr. Giussani and the fraternal companionship of Fr. Carrón.

Signed letter