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Posted: 8/23/2004 6:05:09 AM EDT

Female Prisoners Glow in Rio Jail Beauty Contest

Fri Aug 20, 8:27 PM ET
By Andrei Khalip

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (Reuters) - If not for poor-quality tattoos on the ankles of some contestants, lack of air conditioning and the presence of uniformed female guards around the doors, it would seem like a normal beauty pageant.

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AP Photo Photo
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Slideshow Slideshow: Brazil Jail Hosts Beauty Contest

But the Miss Prisoner contest in Rio de Janeiro's Talavera Bruce prison is one of a kind, as is the penitentiary itself in a country notorious for inhuman conditions in its prisons.

"Rescuing woman's self-esteem" was the slogan that hung above the walkway where 17 women out of 310 Talavera Bruce prisoners paraded on Friday.

And at the very least, it helped to boost self-esteem momentarily. The women looked radiant wearing evening frocks while those who watched cheered them. The contestants catwalked in denim shorts, then in beach skirts and in long dresses.

In the intermissions, girls danced to Madonna (news - web sites) and rap.

The beauty contest is the fruit of efforts by the prison's two-year old administration that started creating jobs for prisoners and bringing a sort of cultural life behind bars.

"It was wonderful for all of us as it fills us with spirit to endure the suffering that we have here," said Maria Aguilera, a Bolivian serving a term for drug trafficking.

She didn't win the Miss title, but the blond woman in a long brown cocktail dress said she was proud to participate. "I feel proud representing my country today," she said.

There are 22 foreign nationals in Talavera Bruce, nearly all convicted of drug trafficking. More than a half of all prisoners are serving time for the same offense.


Although Brazilians dominated the beauty contest and two slim local girls that could easily be mistaken for professional models took the second and third spots, a buxom 25-year-old from Portugal, Elisabeth Sardinha, won the Miss Prisoner tiara.

"It was a very useful event as many girls stayed here doing nothing, not working, and now they are getting involved in something beautiful," she said with a charming smile.

Thanks to the prison's two-year-old administration, prisoners now also have a newspaper, workshops and an amateur theater. Talavera Bruce is tidy and does not look like many other Brazilian prisons, crammed and dirty and described by human rights activists as "reinvented hell."

Andrea Carvalho, 35, a guard, said the prison has changed quite drastically for the better in the past two years. "They used to have riots, but now we don't have more than isolated problems as girls work or do something with their lives."

Working for the newspaper, for example, reduces the time.

"You get one day off your term for every three days of work," said Lotta, 23, from Finland, who makes drawings for the "Just That" newspaper. The newspaper logo is a skinny girl in a bra grinning from a circle of barbed wire. She wore a T-shirt with the same logo. "I'll be home soon, I hope."

Lotta was caught in 2002 with 8.8 pounds of cocaine boarding for Europe and is serving a 4-year term. "The prison is all right, sort of calm, and they are helping us a lot with the paper."

Sabrina Hagel, 25, of Berlin says the prison is "relatively good" thanks to the administration's program, but "it's still worse than I could ever imagine." That despite the fact that foreigners live in smaller cells, while most Brazilians are crammed into cells housing 20-30 prisoners.

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