Murderer as Prison Warden
Antônio Galdino da Silva Neto has a unique story. First, he was a police officer. Then he became a convicted murderer. Finally, today, he is a prison warden.
Antônio spent five years in the police force in the state of Paraíba in Brazil’s northeast before being shipped off as an inmate to the Complexo do Serrotão prison in 1992, sentenced to 15 years for killing his wife in a drunken domestic dispute.
Immediately, Antônio was forced to accept the living conditions from the other side of the prison bars. He spent his first week naked in a triage cell where larvae crawled on the floor. Worse, he then had to learn to co-exist with the other prisoners, many of whom he knew from his career as a policeman.
He says his work as a policeman was “very violent.” He committed a number of on-duty killings and arrested many of the thieves and drug traffickers who were now his cellmates. As he walked by their cells, this time as a prisoner, they shook the bars and called out his name. Men came to his cell to make death threats. “I was living in hell,” says Antônio, now 48 years old.
Friends inside the prison gave him a knife and a revolver, which he hid in his bed for protection. He said he witnessed numerous crimes inside the prison, including a murder. In Paraíba, a poor state, inmate killings, including by decapitation, and prison rebellions are not rare.
Most prisons in Brazil are filled beyond their designated capacity, as the country’s prison population has surpassed half a million. Overwhelmed courts and drug wars exacerbate overcrowding. Incredibly, about 40 percent of Brazil’s prison population is made up of detainees awaiting trial, so they have yet to be convicted of any crime.
Human rights groups sometimes have trouble entering prisons to document the plight of poor and neglected prisoners, some of whom have not been granted their right to speak with a lawyer. While the legal system is not eager to broadcast its shortcomings, generally the prisons allow visits from church representatives.
Sadly, because of his history of killing and capturing prisoners, Antônio heard rumors that he was on a prison hit list, men targeted to be killed by the other prisoners. The prison warden was aware of the hit list and put Antônio in solitary confinement for his protection.
After 20 days alone and utterly miserable, Antônio received a visit from a preacher from the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, an evangelical Christian empire. Antônio prayed fervently and asked to return to his shared cell. The warden told him, “The Bible isn’t going to keep you from getting stabbed in the yard.”
However, Antônio trusted in God and got rid of his weapons and started preaching to other prisoners. He later met his current wife, a church member and schoolteacher, when she visited the prison. He survived the hit list and eventually was granted work-release after serving five years of his sentence for good behavior.
His first job offers upon returning home in 1997 were back in the world of crime, including one to escort illicit cigarette shipments from Paraguay, and another job offer to carry out a contract killing. He turned them down.
Instead, he was allowed to work in public security as an armed escort for politicians, which allowed him to curry favor with numerous congressmen. He became a local personality through radio programs and activism with prisoners’ families and continued to live an honest and hardworking life.
Nearly fifteen years later, in 2011, much to his surprise, he received a governor’s nomination to head one of the state’s jails. “He’s the only one who has experienced all of that first hand, and that is what makes the difference,” said Bosco Francisco do Nascimento, a priest and human rights’ activist who has spent decades advocating for prisoners’ rights.
Today, Antônio, the officer-turned-murderer-turned-prison warden still faces an uphill battle in his new career as head of a prison. He has earned the respect of the prisoners but not always the other prison employees.
Manuel Leite de Araújo, the president of a union representing prison employees, said some guards oppose Antônio’s “sentimental” and friendly approach with inmates, noting that a committee of guards asked the union to oust Antônio from his position.
Although many Brazilians support tough-on-crime political movements, Antônio’s approach puts him closer to human rights activists. He criticizes incarceration policies that he says target the poor for nonviolent drug charges. “We need to change our prisons, which are full of dark-skinned people who are miserable poor,” he wrote in a recent Facebook post. The jail where Antônio works is overcrowded, with nearly 200 inmates in a space for 40.
Antônio, as the prison warden in the state prison located in the town of Sapé, Paraíba, has the power to make big changes. His first major change was to tear down the door of the tiny solitary confinement cell with a hammer. “I wanted to destroy it like a bomb,” he said.
Next, in a test of loyalty with the other prisoners, Antônio asked them to discard any weapons they had, which they did. He later held meetings with family members of the prisoners and discouraged them from bringing illicit items during their visits.
After the flow of illegal items slowed in visitations, he stopped requiring visitors to go through frisking procedures, long denounced as humiliating by rights groups, in which women strip naked to make sure nothing is hidden. Visitors are now subjected only to a metal detector. He said that while drugs are occasionally smuggled in, he has no reports that weapons have been brought in.
Ayrllys Mateus Silva, 24, who is Antônio’s daughter by the wife whom he killed, said both she and her grandmother had forgiven him, and that she visited his prison. “I’m proud of the way he treats people now, especially the inmates,” she said.
On one particular morning, Antônio asked the prison guards to open all the cells. With about a hundred prisoners surrounding him, he raised his hands and led them in prayer.
“He was a policeman who killed his wife,” said Ednaldo Oliveira Correia, who worked for 14 years in Paraíba’s penitentiary system, including as a warden, and is now a talk radio host and a supporter of Antônio’s work. “That’s different from other people who got into the world of crime through drug trafficking or robbery.”
Mr. Correia says when he worked as a warden, he only went into cells “with a submachine gun. If I went into the yard,” he added, referring to Antônio’s casual mingling with inmates, “they are going to try to kill me, the way they would try to kill the majority of wardens here in Paraíba. But they respect Antônio.”
[Research for this article comes from Taylor Barnes at The New York Times. Lead photo of Antônio by Taylor Barnes/The New York Times.]