SÃO PAULO – Catholic leaders in Brazil say a recent decision by the National Penitentiary Department (Depen) to replace in-person chaplain visits to prisoners with ecumenical closed circuit radio stations is a direct attack to the Catholic Church and its Prison Pastoral Commission.

Depen’s plan was announced in a memo in April that said “positive experiences” have been made with “closed-circuit audio systems in the form of ecumenical radios (or equivalent), being respected all forms of religion and creeds.”

According to Depen, those radio stations could “greatly multiply the number of people assisted by their religious institutions, in comparison to the limited quantity of people that attend the in-person visit of a religious leader, usually in the [prison] yards.”

At the beginning of May, the Prison Pastoral Commission sent a letter to Sandro de Souza Barradas, Depen’s Penitentiary Policies Director saying it could not accept the measure.

“Prisoners have a right to religious assistance, and religious assistance is not only preaching. Catholics need to receive the sacraments, and that’s impossible via audio system,” Father Gianfranco Graziola, a theological advisor to the Prison Pastoral Commission, told Crux.

Graziola emphasized that the use of means of communication to broadcast Catholic celebrations must be considered an exceptional measure, something that is valid during a pandemic or to reach people who cannot go to the church.

“But it doesn’t replace in-person Masses and other rites,” he added.

In the opinion of lawyer Antônio Funari Filho, President of the Archdiocese of São Paulo’s Justice and Peace Commission, Depen’s plan fails to recognize the importance of religious assistance in the rehabilitation process for prisoners.

“Prisons should not only be a place of punishment, but they should also help the detainees to change. Religious assistance is a fundamental part of that process. Taking it out of the prisoners is not only bad for them, but for society as a whole,” Funari Filho told Crux.

According to the Prison Pastoral Commission, the measure violates the Brazilian Constitution, which guarantees the right to religious assistance for prisoners and establishes that they can attend “services organized at the penal institution.”

“This plan is aberrant. It’s certainly possible to judicially overturn it,” Funari Filho said.

Graziola pointed out that Brazil’s concordat with the Vatican grants the Catholic Church the right to give spiritual assistance to prisoners. The United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners also determine that prisoners must have the right to get in touch with a qualified representant of their religion.

“Depen’s measure violates all those national and international norms,” he said.

The Prison Pastoral Commission prepared a public letter about the problem and has been collecting signatures from religious institutions and human rights organizations. Several bishops signed the document, as well as the Christian Churches National Council.

The document highlights the importance of the presence of religious representatives in prisons as a way of “preventing and combating rights’ violations that occur in the Brazilian prisons.”

“During a private in-person visit, an imprisoned person feels safe to report his or her experience in prison, a place that notoriously violates rights in a systemic way,” the letter reads.

The Prison Pastoral Commission is recognized as the most vocal religious organization in the Brazilian correctional system. Its representatives continually denounce torture, overcrowding, and other common violations in the country’s prisons and jails. The organization annually publishes reports on all those themes.

“Undoubtedly, that measure targets the Prison Pastoral Commission,” Funari Filho said.

Graziola agrees, saying Depen’s plan is a way of avoiding external monitoring and control of the conditions in the prison system. “But they suggest it in a very discreet way,” he said.

At the same time, the measure apparently benefits other Christian denominations, especially the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), an Evangelical megachurch that owns major TV and radio networks and has political ties with the populist conservative President Jair Bolsonaro.

“Some prisons already have radio stations like the ones described in Depen’s memo. And they usually broadcast UCKG productions,” Graziola said.

Funari Filho noted that no similar measure has ever been suggested by the Brazilian penitentiary authority.

“It’s one of Bolsonaro’s innovations. His administration apparently wants to destroy everything that is connected to human rights,” he said.