Portuguese man holds up bank for prison bed in crisis-hit Lisbon

Posted Sep 19, 2013 by Anne Sewell
Due to the economic crisis in Portugal, some prisoners are renouncing their rights to parole, preferring to stay in jail rather than be homeless and left living on the streets. Some are even committing crimes just to get back into prison.
Prison in Lisbon  Portugal
Prison in Lisbon, Portugal
Paulo Juntas
This is according to José Mouraz Lopes, a magistrate and president of the Union Association of Portuguese judges, and as reported in El País in English.
He told the media: "In July I talked with two colleagues in charge of awarding parole at two Portuguese prisons and they confirmed it. I suppose there must be more. In my experience as a judge and a jurist, this had never happened in Portugal before."
Reportedly the General Directorate of Penitentiary Services "does not know" how many prisoners are rejecting their freedom.
O Companheiro (The Companion) is a non-profit, private Institution which aims to support prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. Since 1987 they have conducted successful work with inmates and ex-inmates, during and after imprisonment, with emphasis on citizens of the city of Lisbon, where the group is based.
José Brites, president of the non-profit group O Companheiro (Portuguese language), says that they have already worked with a number of middle-aged men who prefer to visit the association by day, but return to their prison cell at night, instead of staying out of the prison altogether. Apparently "because of the recession they have no place to go."
However, there was one even more extreme case, that of an older man named Carlos Garcia da Mata. He ended up actually holding up a bank to make sure he had a roof over his head.
Da Mata's sad story is that he was about to be kicked out of a boarding house in Lisbon due to failure to pay the rent. He is unemployed with health problems, living on a monthly pension of 240 euros.
Rather than be kicked out to live on the streets, he decided to pick up a stone, walk to a nearby store, and smash a display window. The alarms went off, and he merely sat down and waited for the police to arrive.
He was arrested and taken down to the police station. However, the judge decided his offense was not jail-worthy and he was released after only two days.
Da Mata warned them: "I'll just do something bigger." And he kept his word. The next day he visited the local bank.
Speaking inside the headquarters of O Companheiro, he explained: "I don't like weapons, so I walked in without a gun or anything, and went over to the teller."
He then handed the female employee a piece of paper reading: "I am desperate. I am armed. Give me 5,000 euros in 50 euro notes."
Da Mata said that the teller gave him 3,000 euros and he walked out. As he had no real escape plan, he simply hailed a taxi.
A few moments later, the taxi driver received a call from the police, who apparently knew that the so-called "bank robber" was harmless. They said he must please return to the bank.
Da Mata continued, "I didn't mind getting caught. All I wanted was a roof over my head. But I didn't have time to spend a single euro, not even to buy a cigarette!"
Once again the judge deemed Da Mata unworthy of a jail sentence and he was sent to O Companheiro to perform community work.
He now lives at O Companheiro and works selling magazines on the streets. The proceeds from the sale go to the homeless in the city and Da Mata makes enough money to buy himself some cigarettes.
However, not everyone is that lucky. Libero (Italian language) reports that according to Judge Mouraz Lopes, there are around 14,000 people in prison in Portugal. This figure has grown over the last two years by 2,000.
When asked if there was more crime, he said no. The crime rate has actually dropped and Lopes feels that the growing inmate population is being caused by other problems.
Lopes says he feels that former inmates are not being given the proper opportunity of reintegration into society: "It's not that prisoners would rather stay in jail."
"Those are symbolic cases, but few and far between. It's the judges in charge of granting parole who see that the requirements are not being met. The crisis is removing means to care for inmates who could otherwise be released."
The economic crisis, followed by harsh austerity measures, has badly affected life in Portugal, with high unemployment and reduced pension and other social services.