RIO DE JANEIRO – Brightening the cells inside Nelson Hungria Prison with the true Christmas spirit of love and togetherness is the purpose of the Shining Cell Contest, which for the past seven years has awarded a prize to the cell with the best Yuletide decorations in the women’s prison in Rio de Janeiro.
Located in the Bangu neighborhood on the city’s west side, the penitentiary fills up with Christmas decorations thanks to the inmates, who decorate their cells and put on little theatrical shows featuring their singing and dancing.
“They’ve been working on this project for three months,” prison director Anna Gabriela Rosamae told EFE, adding that the Christmas contest is the healthiest of the disputes among the inmates because “they help each other,” and that creates bonds among them.
“For me it’s been very important. Aside from seeing who wins, we’re having fun for once and occupying our minds, because Christmas behind bars is very hard,” said Marcela Suares, one of the inmates taking part in the event.
The Yuletide season, full of family reunions and celebrations, is especially difficult for many of the prisoners, who can scarcely hold back their tears after putting on the shows in their cells they have been working on for so long.
“However much we miss our families, we manage to occupy our minds, so what’s important for us isn’t the winning, it’s the playing together,” Suares said through the bars of her cell framed with a red wreath made of candy wrappers.
Christmas ornaments like wreaths, tinsel and garlands fill the penitentiary with color and something special – the work and dreams of the inmates who make them with the recyclable materials available in their cell blocks.
The recycling gives a second chance to materials otherwise considered trash, said another inmate, Diana Duarte, and that’s what we convicts hope to achieve with our lives.
With regard to the prizes, a renovation of the cell bathroom is the first prize, a television is second prize, and a movie with popcorn goes to those who come in third, though “all are winners.”
Suares said the decoration of her cell aims to send the message of “a new story and a new beginning,” and when asked if she was happy, she said “yes” somewhat dubiously. “I’d rather be at home but, yes, I’m happy,” she said.