Some of Brazil's violent offenders are being offered the opportunity for radical rehabilitation via the powerful psychedelic experience of the ayahuasca ceremony.
Rather than the system of continued abuse and alienation many modern prisons employ, some of Brazil’s prisons are starting to offer holistic services to encourage rehabilitation in inmates. Services offered to selected Brazilian prisoners include guided healing practices like yoga, reiki, meditation, and in some locations, ayahuasca journeying. The goal is to provide rehabilitation to violent criminals and reduce the rates of recidivism after prisoners are released.
Ayahuasca is a psychedelic tea derived from the ayahuasca vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, and the Psychotria viridis plant, both of which are native to the Amazon. Ayahuasca ceremony is an ancient healing tradition used by indigenous Amazonian peoples. Some of those who have partaken of ayahuasca report profound psychological and sometimes physical healing experiences.
In recent years, ayahuasca has piqued the interest and curiosity of people in the rest of the world, culminating in an ayahuasca tourism industry throughout Amazonian regions of South America. As ayahuasca’s international popularity has grown, so has research into its therapeutic uses. The plant has shown potential to help people recover from trauma, PTSD, addiction and depression, as well as cancers and other afflictions.
Brazilian prisons started to offer ayahuasca through the prisoners’ rights advocacy group Acuda, based in in Porto Velho. As Aaron Kase notes in a 2015 article:
"The ayahuasca program serves a dual purpose. Prison populations in Brazil have doubled since 2000, and conditions are grossly overcrowded, so the retreats are a kind of pilot to try to reduce recidivism rates. For now, it’s just a few inmates participating, and it’s too early to tell whether the treatments will help keep them from reentering the criminal justice system, but it’s at least a starting point."
One inmate convicted of murder told the New York Times in 2015 about the lessons he had learned from his ayahuasca experience: “I’m finally realizing I was on the wrong path in this life. Each experience helps me communicate with my victim to beg for forgiveness.”
As the New York Times article explains in detail, supervisors at Acuda who get permission from a judge transport about 15 prisoners each month to a temple for ayahuasca ceremony.
“Many people in Brazil believe that inmates must suffer, enduring hunger and depravity,” Euza Beloti, a psychologist with Acuda, told the New York Times in the same article. “This thinking bolsters a system where prisoners return to society more violent than when they entered prison. [At Acuda] we simply see inmates as human beings with the capacity to change.”