37 Years Behind Bars: My Life as a Brazilian Jailbird

37 Years Behind Bars: My Life as a Brazilian Jailbird

By Camilo de Mello and Vanessa da Rocha


Because mistakes will be made.

By Camilo de Mello and Vanessa da Rocha

I entered prison in 1976. I was 17 and I saw a lot of bad things, like death. My God, it was awful. It was a time of dictatorship in Brazil. Everyone was subject to repression. I was sent to prison just because I was on the street at night. There was a curfew. Several times I was tortured by soldiers. What could I do? Talk to who? At that time, we had no human rights. The killing of thousands of prisoners was common inside the jails. Sometimes, in the prison I was in, 20 to 30 prisoners died in a single day. I could not take it anymore. When my family went there, I said, “Get me out of here, for the love of God. I am desperate.”

Jail is more than a school of crime, it’s a university. I spent most of my time in the Presídio Central, the central prison of Porto Alegre. There, you will only learn bad things. I was a teenager and had to live with killers and rapists in the same cell. If the guy was looking at you and he did not like your look, he would kill you. I ended up making agreements with them to secure my life until I found a way out of that place. There is no way to live in isolation. To be there, you have to belong to a group or faction. But we went deeper into these friendships. The moment you give your word, you cannot go back. When I realized this, I was already buried.

Another important thing in there is to gain respect in some way. The way to do that, at that time, was to kill. So I thought: Either I kill or I risk my life to escape.

Another important thing in there is to gain respect in some way. The way to do that, at that time, was to kill. So I thought: Either I kill or I risk my life to escape. I tried to jump over those walls. They caught me twice and beat me a lot. I was very young, so small that I did not have the strength to climb the rope on the wall. Many died trying. After I survived, it created strength and I got through it. There was a lot of rifle shooting from the guards. I do not know even now how I got through that.

There were three days of walking in the bush with no shirt, only shorts. It was cold, my God. We took corn from the plantations and ate them like they were the greatest of delicacies, and also so as not to spoil the corncob and give a clue to our whereabouts. As a fugitive, my situation became even more difficult. I could not go to my mother’s house since I was being hunted by the police. I had to deal with the consequences alone. The only way was to risk more on the side of crime, so I started stealing.


I do not know how I am alive, but it must be because of God. Once, I was in the bush when the cops were coming. I had nowhere to run, so I hid under a cupboard. They passed by my side and I prayed, because I knew that if they looked back, they would see me. The police would not come to arrest, they would come to kill. Another time, my group and I had just robbed a bank and was still counting the money in a house. I went to buy bread. When I came back, the house was overrun by the cops who killed my comrades. In another escape, the police punctured the car I was in in a blazing shoot-out. On my side, the colleague who was driving was killed. I looked at my door and it had more than 20 shots, but no bullet caught me. Yeah, I was alive, but I had to go back to jail.

Every time I went back to prison, I was more respected because the guys knew I had blood. Blood is courage. I was involved in riots, robberies of a gas station, restaurants, jewelry stores, banks. In some thefts, we had hostages who died. My sentence rose to more than 200 years. I was just thinking of running away again, and I prayed that I could get past those walls. Then I would escape from the prison, I would be involved in a new robbery, and I would back in prison again. That was how my life went.

camilonow jose raulino

Camilo de Mello. On ice.

Source Photo courtesy of José Raulino

The worst part was not the torture or the risk of being killed. It was seeing my family visit me with tears on their faces. It was because of them that I changed my life. I stopped running away from the prison. I thought I was never going to be set free until a group of judges visited the jail where I was. I screamed desperately for help. They analyzed my case and gave me a vote of confidence that I had indeed changed my life.

I wanted other people to have the opportunity I had to get a job and move on. I hear a lot about the need to invest in the fight against crime in Brazil, but I think it is necessary to invest in the people to reduce violence in the country. If they can give more assistance to the millions of children in the country’s slums today, the good result will come a few years from now. If they invest less in bullets and more in pencils, books and education, crime will decrease. 

Camilo de Mello, though no longer in prison, has been serving a 27-year conditional liberty sentence since 2013. Outside of periodic visits to present himself to the court, he works in construction where, for every three days he works, he reduces his sentence by one day. He’s presently working on building a new Hall of Justice.