Brazilian prisoners produce footballs

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> > > By JERÉ LONGMAN > > CONTAGEM, Brazil — Hugo Alves used to play professional soccer for a living. He remains connected to the sport, but not in the way he intended. Now his uniform consists of a red T-shirt and pants, and he makes soccer balls at a factory in prison. > > “I’d rather be playing with the footballs than making them,” said Alves, 31, who is serving a five-year sentence for drug trafficking. He added with a rueful laugh, “I’m in the same field, at least.” > > Alves is one of 80 inmates who make soccer balls at the maximum-security Nelson Hungria Penitentiary, near the southeastern city of Belo Horizonte, one of 12 Brazilian cities hosting the World Cup. > > The soccer ball factory sits inside a cinder-block building with a metal roof, located inside high prison walls and surrounded by a chain-link fence topped by razor wire. Forty inmates work eight hours a day, five days a week, making the balls. Another 40 prisoners work from their cells stitching together the outer covering of balls in a different manufacturing process. > > An inmate carried his meal as he passed under balls hanging outside to dry before assembly into soccer balls at the Nelson Hungria Penitentiary, near Belo Horizonte, Brazil. > > The factory opened in 2011 as part of a broader effort across Brazil to raise inmates’ morale, prepare them for life after prison and reduce severe prison overcrowding. Other programs allow federal prisoners to whittle days from their sentences by participating in literacy programs, reading classic literature and writing book reports. At a prison in the city of Santa Rita do Sapucaí, inmates ride stationary bikes attached to batteries that provide enough power to light a local plaza. > > At the factory in Contagem, inmates make 400 balls a day, earning 543 Brazilian real (about $243) per month. A quarter of that goes to the state, 50 percent goes to the inmates or their families, and a quarter goes into an account and is paid upon release. One day is knocked off the inmates’ sentences for every three days worked. > > The prison balls are not destined for the World Cup. The official ball is made in Pakistan for Adidas to be used in all 64 tournament matches. That ball has its own name, the Brazuca, along with a million followers on Twitter. Before the tournament, the Brazuca underwent quality-control testing by more than 600 professional players and 30 teams across three continents. > > The prison balls, which are made for a company called Trivella, are also used by professionals, but far less visibly in the state league of Minas Gerais, where the prison is located. They also find use in the prison’s recreational games and in amateur matches outside the prison walls, as well as in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. > > A machine was used to apply glue to parts of balls, which a family-owned company sells. Prison inmates in the factory are rewarded with pay and a sentence reduction: one day for every three days of labor. > > Trivella’s factory-made balls, constructed by hand and machine, consist of a latex bladder wrapped with a nylon lining and fitted with polyurethane panels that are thermally molded and silk-screened with the company logo and various markings. At various times in the process, pieces of the ball’s outer casing lie on sheets like baked cookies, and bladders hang from hooks like melons. > > Inmates said they were proud that the balls were used in the state’s professional championship. > > Some joked that the quality matched the Brazuca’s. > > “It’s the best ball,” said Alves, who said he had played in lower leagues in Argentina, Italy and Peru. > > The soccer ball work is among the most prized of prison jobs, which are hard to come by across Brazil. Only 120 prisoners in four prisons in the state are making balls, officials said. > > Alves said he waited more than a year to be hired. > > Most workers wear masks to protect against the fumes from glue and other chemicals. They are sometimes allowed to send balls to relatives and friends. Graciano Antonio Barros da Mata, one of the prison workers, personalized one ball with the name of his 14-year-old son. > > The best thing about the job, da Mata and Alves said, is that it provides relief from the daily tedium of life behind bars in a country where prisons are notorious for endemic violence and inadequate treatment. > > “It’s great coming out of the cell and coming here,” said da Mata, 37, who has worked for 16 months in the factory and is serving eight years for murder. “Time passes more quickly. You stop thinking about bad things.” > > In this soccer-consumed nation, for a small number of prisoners, the reach of the national sport extends even to efforts at prison reform. > > “You take something that is an everyday practice in Brazil, football, and you associate it with this social question, the question of the prison system, which for many years was forgotten and now has come to the surface, and you link it to the work of prisoners,” said Murilo Andrade Oliveira, the secretary of prison administration for Minas Gerais. “It is fantastic that we can participate a little in the life of the country, which is this respect for football.” > > Critics of the prison work programmes say that inmates are vulnerable to being exploited as cheap labor and that the making of soccer balls does not prepare them for life on the outside. > > “Jobs outside prisons making footballs don’t exist,” said Luis Carlos Valois, a senior criminal court judge in the state of Amazonas. “The company benefits greatly, of course. The conditions within the prisons are very bad, and the average prisoner is poor and vulnerable. Whatever these companies offer the prisoner, they are going to say yes. The company is trading off misery.” > > Brazil’s prison conditions have long been a serious national problem. The country has about 550,000 inmates, 66 percent more than the prisons were built to house, including nearly 175,000 in pretrial detention, according to a 2013 report by Human Rights Watch. The country’s incarceration rate increased about 40 percent in the last five years, the report said. > > At least one widely known prisoner has worked making soccer balls in the Nelson Hungria Penitentiary. He is Bruno Fernandes, 29, a former goalkeeper and captain of the celebrated Rio team Flamengo and once a candidate to make Brazil’s World Cup team. Last year, he received a 22-year prison sentence for ordering the murder of a former girlfriend in a lurid case that received widespread attention. > > Prosecutors said Bruno orchestrated the killing to avoid paying child support. His girlfriend’s body has not been recovered and was reported to have been fed to dogs. He has been incarcerated since 2010 in connection with a related kidnapping. > > Under a Brazilian law aimed at reintegrating inmates into society, though, Bruno has signed a contract with a second-division team in Minas Gerais and is seeking to play again in a work-release program. A judge denied his initial request several days ago. But Bruno will soon be transferred to a prison nearer the team and is expected again to seek to resume his career. > > In the factory office of Tarcisio R. Cruz, the president of the family-owned Trivella company, soccer balls and volleyballs line the shelves. The company built the factory and pays the utilities, but it saves on salaries, overtime and taxes that would have to be paid in more conventional employment. And it does not have to pay the so-called 13th salary, a widespread bonus given to Brazilian workers that amounts to a month’s paycheck. > > Trivella makes about $190,000 a month on the sale of its soccer balls — all of which are made in prison — with less than $20,000 in monthly payroll costs, Cruz said. He said he did not believe he was exploiting the prisoners. > > “These workers are 10 times better than workers on the outside,” Cruz said. “They are afraid of losing their jobs. They have a great desire to work. There’s never a single problem.” > (NYTimes)