Owen Smith, Staff Writer 

USC scholar spends two weeks living with the prisoners of Rio de Janeiro

Dr. Andrew Johnson from the University of Southern California gave a presentation for the Colloquium on the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion on December 13 in O’Shaughnessy Hall.  His talk, in which he discussed the role of faith in prisons, was entitled: “Beyond Coping: Pentecostalism Inside of Prison in Rio de Janeiro.”

In addition to teaching at USC, Johnson has worked at the US Embassies in Honduras and Brazil.  Last year he was a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.  His research in Brazil, which focused on analyzing the success of Pentecostalism in prisons, was funded by the Templeton Foundation.  In conjunction with his research experience, Johnson is currently working on a book manuscript and documentary film titled If I Give My Soul.

Johnson began his presentation with a discussion of the city of Rio itself.  While the city is famous for its beaches and soccer, and while these will be put on display with next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, there is a darker side to this South American metropolis.  “There really are two cities in the same city,” Johnson explained.

In comparing Rio to Detroit, a city known for its high murder rate, Johnson demonstrated the incredible depth and prevalence of violent crime in Rio.  While Detroit has one of the highest murder rates in the US at about 8 per 1,000 people, Rio tops that with an astonishing 77.4 per 1,000 people.  Rio has about 6,000 murders per year, and from 2000 to 2006 the Rio police themselves killed an average of over 1,043 people per year.  Johnson said there is no other way to describe the situation besides “a civil war that they’re going through.”  He explained that most of the people murdered are poor, dark-skinned young men from outlying areas of the city.  These so-called “killable people” also constitute a large portion of Rio’s incarcerated persons.

Johnson discussed the instrumental purposes of religion among the incarcerated, while admitting that prisoners might act religious in order to look good in front of the parole board or as a coping mechanism.  He also mentioned that prisoners who practice religion have a lower recidivism rate, a phenomenon that Johnson called “more God, less crime.”

In order to observe the practice of religion among prisoners, Johnson spent two weeks living alongside the inmates, doing chores and participating in common activities such as dominoes and soccer.  He ate the same food and slept in the cells as the prisoners, even observing 15-bed cells that had 80 men in them.  Johnson felt the “overwhelming sense of loss and waste” that the prisoners experience.

Johnson believes that Pentecostalism is “the faith of the killable people.”  Catholicism is more prevalent among the upper and middle class in Rio, while the impoverished have been rapidly turning to Pentecostalism.  In one jail that he visited, Johnson said that there were 17 Pentecostal groups visiting, compared to only one Catholic group and one other group.

“Pentecostals are often criticized for a lack of political engagement,” Johnson noted, but he claimed that prison visits from Pentecostal groups have a “politics of presence” because those groups “favor direct action more than political action.”  Johnson said that the Pentecostal visitors are so effective because they “treat the inmates as people with human dignity.”  In turn, the prisoners treat visitors with respect and reverence.  Johnson was very impressed by the hospitality that prisoners showed him and other visitors; he described their generosity as “incredible.”

Johnson also talked about the inmate-led churches in each prison.  The inmates elect a pastor, deacons, worship leaders and secretaries that carry out the church’s duties.  Pastors wear suits and ties, and guestbooks and welcome letters complete with a church logo make the prison churches seem official.  “The prisoners practice their faith by living in community with each other,” Johnson said.

The relationship between the churches and the gang presence in Rio prisons is also unique.  Both groups hold power in the jail and accept members, and both occupy space in the cells.   Both have strong, charismatic leaders.  Johnson estimated that about 60 percent of the inmates are members of the gang, and about 10 percent are in the church.  The two groups operate in relative harmony.  The gang allows members to leave and become part of the church.

On the conversions that happen in the cells, Johnson said, “Here you have some of the state’s biggest threats saying, ‘I give my soul.’”  The conversion practices focus on behavioral change.  Members encourage each other to pray every night, treat their wives better and quit smoking, for instance.

Dr. Christian Smith, Director of the Center for the Study of Society and Religion,  introduced Johnson at the lecture.  The Rover caught up with Smith afterwards. When asked about his thoughts on Pentecostalism having such an influence on the prisoners and how this displays the significance of religion in society, Smith said, “Pentecostalism is a fairly new religion, historically, that has swept around the world, especially the global south, among poorer and transient people.  It is powerful and attractive in many ways, so grows fast.”  He added that Pentecostalism “often pulls away nominal Catholics, especially in Latin America. Pentecostalism does appear to give struggling people a new sense of self-efficacy, self-respect, ability to face life’s challenges, etc.”

Owen Smith is a sophomore sociology and American studies major. He will be attending the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium and wearing his Red Sox attire.  To applaud or criticize this decision, contact Owen at osmith1@nd.edu.