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Inspired by a Special Inmate

Charles Colson tells the story of Humaita Prison in Brazil and its unusual prisoner.

By Charles W. Colson, Washington, D. C.

As appeared in

The following story appeared in the January 1995 issue of Guideposts:

As one who has served time in prison, and has since spent most of my life working in them, I’ll never forget the most unusual prison I’ve ever visited.

Called Humaita Prison, it is in São José dos Campos in Brazil. Formerly a government prison, it is now operated by Prison Fellowship Brazil as an alternative prison, without armed guards or high-tech security. Instead, it is run on the Christian principles of love of God and respect for men.

Humaita has only two full-time staff; the rest of the work is done by the 730 inmates serving time for everything from murder and assault to robbery and drug-related crimes. Every man is assigned another inmate to whom he is accountable. In addition, each prisoner is assigned a volunteer mentor from the outside who works with him during his term and after his release. Prisoners take classes on character development and are encouraged to participate in educational and religious programs.

When I visited this prison, I found the inmates smiling—particularly the murderer who held the keys, opened the gates and let me in. Wherever I walked I saw men at peace. I saw clean living areas. I saw people working industriously. The walls were decorated with motivational sayings and Scripture.

Humaita has an astonishing record. Its recidivism rate is 4 percent, compared to 75 percent in the rest of Brazil. How is that possible?

I saw the answer when my inmate guide escorted me to the notorious cell once used for solitary punishment. Today, he told me, it always houses the same inmate. As we reached the end of the long concrete corridor and he put the key into the lock, he paused and asked, “Are you sure you want to go in?”

“Of course,” I replied impatiently. “I’ve been in isolation cells all over the world.” Slowly he swung open the massive door, and I saw the prisoner in that cell: a crucifix, beautifully carved—Jesus, hanging on the cross.

“He’s doing time for the rest of us,” my guide said softly.

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