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December 01, 2005

Beauty behind bars

Last May, I wrote about a Thai beauty pageant for transvestites and transsexuals. I assume there's another one going on around now, because I've received a surprising number of hits from searches for this.

Today, thanks to fee simple, I learned about another foreign beauty pageant that's weird in its own way. According to this New York Times story, the Brazilians have a beauty pageant in which female prisoners strut their stuff.

It was a retrial Brazilian style.

Forty convicted felons - drug traffickers and armed robbers mostly, but the odd kidnapper and murderer too - appeared again on Thursday before a state-appointed jury here in São Paulo, the capital of Brazil's most populous state.

Rather than shackles and prison yellow, though, the convicts donned evening gowns and high heels, bathing suits and costume jewelry. Charged to ignore the women's crimes, the jury instead was instructed to judge them on their beauty and congeniality, and on their talents in writing essays and poetry.

The second annual Miss Penitenciária pageant was the culmination of a competition lasting months in which 603 inmates from 10 prisons vied for titles in what is quickly becoming one of the best-known pageants in beauty-obsessed Brazil. By allowing the 4,000 women in the state's prisons the chance to parade the catwalk, the authorities hope to brighten morale and in the process lighten the image of a penal system better known for cramped and crime-ridden penitentiaries for men, where mutinies and murders are what normally make global headlines.
The contestants engaged in the same stupid socially redeeming activities that our beauty pageant contestants practice:
The inmates competed in categories that, aside from the headlining "beauty" classification, included a simpatia, or congeniality competition, plus an essay and poetry contest on the theme of "rewriting the future." Though the prizes were modest - the winner in each category won 350 reals, or just over $150 - the inmates were motivated by the colorful change to their drab routine and the chance to take part in an event unlikely for them on the outside.
Anyway, the TV movie is half written in this Times story:

After morning classes with a choreographer who trains contestants for Miss Brazil, the inmates strutted out on the stage, a T-shaped platform draped in red and white bunting. In addition to the 700 fellow inmates who made up the prison audience - their cheers and jeers at times drowning out the voices of the emcees and contestants - scores of photographers and television crews recorded every step and pose.

* * *

Angélica Mazua, a tall, wiry, 23-year-old Angolan who was arrested at the São Paulo airport earlier this year with 2.2 pounds of cocaine tucked into a pair of sneakers, said she was taking part "to represent my prison and make us all feel better about our situation." The eventual winner of the beauty category, Ms. Mazua is jailed at the prison that held the final, and thus was buoyed by the chants and screams of the home crowd.

A similar esprit de corps was evident a day earlier at a minimum security prison for women in São José dos Campos, a small city 55 miles east of São Paulo. As the prison's four contestants tried on their gowns and high heels for a walk around an interior courtyard, companions gave tips on posture and eye contact. Priscila Maria Pereira Ferreira, a blond, blue-eyed 22-year-old convicted of marijuana possession, said cellmates even joined in when she did nightly situps in efforts to tone her stomach.

"It became a challenge for all of us," she said. "We all want the prison to win."
A few spoilsports -- you know, law enforcement guys -- think the idea stinks.
Some law-and-order advocates were offended by the contest. "What's next?" asked Jorge Damus, founder of the Movement for the Resistance of Crime, in São Paulo. "Are they going to pay them to pose nude? This is state-sponsored glorification of people who are supposed to be getting punished."
But no one should take them seriously, right? Their views can't stand in the way of rehabilitation. And female bodies.