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Brazil’s ‘sisters-in-law’ strike gold opening prison doors on TikTok

Prisoners’ wives and girlfriends are making money by sharing the ins and outs of visiting their partners in the country with the largest prison population after China and the U.S.

Captures of videos from social networks in which wives and girlfriends of Brazilian prisoners talk about their daily life, routine, and the uncertainties of prison visits.
Captures of videos from social networks in which wives and girlfriends of Brazilian prisoners talk about their daily life, routine, and the uncertainties of prison visits.TIKTOK
Naiara Galarraga Gortázar

Among the constellation of stars that populate the almost infinite universe called TikTok, Brazilian “sisters-in-law” have found their niche. And they are succeeding. They are the wives and girlfriends of prisoners — cunhadas (sisters-in-law) they call themselves — who, in short homemade videos, share the ins and outs of their daily lives, the mixture of routine, emotions, and the uncertainty that accompanies each visit to prison to spend a few hours with their sweetheart.

The clip Dia de visita no xilindró (the Brazilian equivalent of “the clink”) caused a real sensation. A twenty-something girl with impossible eyelashes and tattooed hands tells followers how she is finally going to visit her “boy” after 45 days without seeing him “because he was in solitary confinement, they have moved him to semi-open [jail] and changed his facility.” Once the bureaucratic formalities were completed, and she was already inside the penitentiary, there was almost nothing left to do before the long-awaited reunion, she said, when the nightmare began to unfold. “A very nice policewoman, cute, a paragon of empathy,” he says brimming with irony, “tells me: the X-ray machine is not working. Visits are suspended. She adds that we can talk on the phone for 15 minutes.”

From there, the sister-in-law goes through a carousel of emotions — a recipe for success on social networks. And, because this is TikTok, a cat walks in front of the screen. The result: six million internet users have seen the video, which has more than 6,000 comments. The video’s maker, Mischa Lemos, has almost a million followers and has managed to turn her tribulations as a prisoner’s wife into a source of sponsorship and income. Her case is not exceptional, but neither is it generalized.

It does represent a radical change because until recently no one went around telling everybody that they were a prisoner’s wife. Clip by clip, often with prison raps in the background, these women open a door to a very tangible reality that every now and then hits the headlines, but whose face is more usually bloodstained: riots, barbaric killings, or torture. Brazil has more than 900,000 people in prison (one in every 100 men); penitentiaries are overcrowded and prisoners live in deplorable conditions. Only China and the U.S. have higher prison populations.

Sociologist Fernanda Naiara Lobato, from the Federal University of Ceará, researches the phenomenon of sisters-in-law on TikTok and Instagram for her PhD on women who have romantic or conjugal relationships with incarcerated men. “These women share their daily lives using the language of the internet, with memes, humor, and sarcasm that get you hooked,” she explains by video call from Fortaleza.

The prisons of Ceará in particular are in the news these days for several cases of torture of inmates such as breaking fingers or genital twisting. The researcher stresses the symbolic component of being mistreated in the “love room,” the conjugal visit room, “a place that once meant something very different.”

Lobato argues that this phenomenon of networking prisoners’ wives achieves several things: one, it chases away the stigma surrounding the incarcerated and their families; two, it encourages solidarity among these women, who are building a community; three, it humanizes the prison experience; and four, it exchanges useful information. In the end, they show that the world of prisons is not isolated from the rest of society. Many of these women complain that when they go to their partners’ prison, they also face a penalty.

On TikTok they give little detail about their peers, the researcher explains, they mostly talk about themselves. In this environment, as in the prison queues, no one asks what anyone’s partner in in jail for. It is considered offensive. Prison codes are not violated inside or outside prisons because it is not free.

South America’s most powerful criminal group, the First Capital Command (PCC), which dominates prisons and favelas, began using the term sisters-in-law for the wives of its members (brothers), but it has been extended to include any woman in a relationship with an inmate; female inmates, on the other hand, are often abandoned by partners and family.

Brazilian prisons are overcrowded. While at the beginning of the century the number of prisoners was around 200,000, in little more than two decades, the prison population has tripled. The main reason why the number now exceeds 900,000 is the 2006 anti-drug law, which does not distinguish between traffickers and consumers.

The Supreme Court has shown signs that it intends to reopen the debate on the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use. There is already a date to hear an appeal about it. The hearing, initially scheduled for June, has been postponed to August 3. Proof of the thorny nature of the issue is the many years that the matter has been frozen in Brazil’s highest court. In 2015, the magistrates began to hear the appeal — filed by a man who was caught with three grams of marijuana. When three of the eleven had voted in favor, a fourth judge asked for time to study the case in more detail. And it stayed there, stalled. Eight years have passed. The expectation is that the judges will approve some relaxation of the drug law. The most optimistic dream is getting an agreement on a specific amount that distinguishes the consumer from the trafficker.

Organized crime runs Brazil’s prisons, it manages them. It is common for authorities to ask detainees if they want to be placed in a prison dominated by this or that gang, thus avoiding prison wars. And the speed at which they innovate is astonishing. During the pandemic, the PCC, which is a brotherhood of criminals that rewards entrepreneurship, began to organize visitor queues via Telegram to avoid crowds, according to a recent report in Piauí magazine. A kind of appointment booking system that has been extended to other prisons.

Sisters-in-law who take to social networks do not report human rights violations. That is left to groups such as the Catholic church’s prison ministry. These influencers show their own, sweetened version of family life — as TikTok dictates. They record themselves while cooking the meals they are going to take and place each food item in a transparent bag until they complete dishes such as spaghetti bolognese or even a steak. “Jumbo” is the name given in prison jargon to the transparent bag in which they carry food, new changes of clothes, toothpaste, and so on, because in many Brazilian prisons even the most basic items are lacking.

Under the hashtag #mulherdepreso (prison wife) or #soltaopresoseujuiz (release the prisoner Mr. Judge), TikTok videos circulate in which the sisters-in-law show the bra and perfume they will wear for the next intimate visit. Or they pose in the jaw-dropping outfit they would like to wear to the penitentiary but is not allowed. Prisons impose a dress code for visitors. The usual, T-shirt, leggings, and flip-flops. The sisters-in-law also take the opportunity to satisfy the audience’s curiosity: they show how to charge an electronic ankle monitor or talk about the money invested and hours spent traveling to make the long-anticipated weekly or bi-weekly visit come true. And then, they pull out their cell phones, get cute and tell the world about it.

In this parallel universe, they reproduce the dynamics of the real world. Although the majority of Brazilian inmates are Black or of mixed race, the sisters-in-law with most followers are straight-haired clear-skinned women.

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