Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais, Brazil
By Paulo Whitaker
A stylish, high-society blonde smelling of French perfume, inside a maximum security prison teaching prisoners to knit, truly seemed like a scene from a movie. But that’s what I found in Juiz de Fora, a medium-sized city in Brazil’s southeastern state of Minas Gerais.
Just a few years ago, Raquell Guimaraes, now 32, began working with her mother to knit clothing in tricot. They enjoyed success and with an increase in orders she needed more knitters, but couldn’t find enough. That was when she decided to visit the Arisvaldo de Campos Pires maximum security penitentiary in Juiz de Fora, about 100 miles (160 kms) north of Rio de Janeiro. There, Ms. Guimaraes found her perfect knitters, people with available time, some with as many as 20 years to spare.
At first, she presented to the prison administration a proposal to train female prisoners to produce her clothing. But after talking with the warden, Andrea Andires, they concluded that it would be more productive to work with male prisoners, an idea that at first seemed a little bizarre. These prisoners have violent histories, and the question was whether men imprisoned for offenses such as armed robbery, drug trafficking, and murder, could learn to knit tricot. This was the gamble that Guimaraes and Andires took, with excellent results.
Today 18 prisoners work to produce handmade knit clothing. And with that work they not only receive extra money but they also reduce their sentences by one day for each three days spent knitting. Guimaraes sells the creations under her Doiselles brand around Brazil, and in select stores in San Francisco, New York and Tokyo.
When I reached the prison entrance to begin my story, the first thing that happened was that the guards confiscated my cell phone. Phones are prohibited inside Brazilian jails, in spite of the fact that everyone knows that many prisoners have them. I was also prohibited from photographing the outside of the prison without special permission from the warden. They explained to me that I could only photograph inside the room where the prisoners were knitting.