In Carandiru, the biggest prison complex in Latin America, chaos is a way of life. Jailbreaks are common, and riots take place every few days. Three months ago, security officers discovered 50 pounds of dynamite in a cell. Overcrowding is so bad that sometimes 10 prisoners inhabit a space built for one.
"You walk in and feel the lack of rules. It's a complete circus," says James Cavallaro, director of the Global Justice human rights group.
And authorities will do almost anything to ease the tension. Even organize a mass marriage.
So, last week 114 prisoners in the Carandiru Detention Center tied the knot with their sweethearts after authorities agreed to the mega-wedding in hopes of cooling tensions in the prison built for 3,200 inmates, but now home to more than 7,300.
According to Nagashi Furukawa, head of the So Paulo state prison system, Carandiru is the jail with "the most problems. But the mass wedding is a good thing because it calms the atmosphere."
It turns out that such inmate "perks" keep everyone safer too.
"When prisoners have family support on the outside," continues Mr. Furukawa, "they behave better and cause less trouble. We imagine that family support helps them once they're on the outside also." Meaning, they're less likely to get sent back to the big house.
Up until the group nuptials, the happiest moments were on days when something happened to break the relentless monotony of prison life. Like when some inmates gave a fashion show or when a group of rappers held a concert.
The idea of matrimonial relief came in January after Sister Antonina, an Evangelical missionary who regularly visits the prison, realized many prisoners wanted to get married to their fiances. The project was discussed but shelved because the prisoners couldn't afford to pay for a justice of the peace, a marriage certificate, and the obligatory newspaper announcement.
But when Sister Antonina arranged to have the services donated, the project got the green light and by 8 a.m. on June14 brides dressed in frothy white wedding gowns were stepping out of taxis onto the dusty streets of So Paulo.
After being searched, the women walked to a small room to have their hair and makeup done by volunteer attendants. Composed mothers calmly handed out advice. Dozens of emotional brides swapped bouquets and made last minute adjustments to each other's beaded dresses. They then walked down the "aisle" - through grim corridors to a chapel where the four visitors permitted by each couple were waiting.
Criminals with black teeth and crooked ties gazed lovingly at formidable women with tattoos. Hard men wept. Armed robbers got choked up.
A pastor asked the brides if they promised to stand by their husbands, "for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in prison or free."
They all answered yes.
And when the ceremony ended the couples celebrated with soft drinks and chips. Champagne was a no-no. By the way, there will not be any honeymoon trips, either.
"We can't let them out," Furukawa joked. "They'd never be back."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society