Edilsom Fernandes, the creator of an ayahuasca congregation in Brazil, was contacted in 2012 by an association that helps rehabilitate prisoners. The association employed an eclectic array of therapies to help rehabilitate the inmates at some of the most notorious prisons in Brazil. By the end of the year, Fernandes was serving the powerfully psychoactive brew ayahuasca in a religious setting to prison inmates.
Ayahuasca is a plant medicine brew typically made from boiling the vine Banisteriopsis caapi with the shrub Psychotria viridis. It produces very strong effects in drinkers, which can include intense emotions, visual and auditory changes, and purging or vomiting. The prisoners Fernandes has been helping rehabilitate “come to see themselves inside the ayahuasca experience as their victims saw them,” he explained. With a spiritual passion for helping people, Fernandes has also dedicated himself to supporting land rights efforts of the Indigenous people of the Amazon, who are the original stewards of ayahuasca.
How long have you been doing your job? How did you come in contact with ayahuasca to begin with?
My contact with ayahuasca began on February 10, 1985 at UDV by the invitation of a person who asked me to try the vine tea, which I did. Then I drank with the Indians and learned from them a new way of doing it. It was when I turned away from the religious part and became interested in the more humanistic part, and for a period I stayed within the ayahuasca context much more in an esoteric way than as an anthropological thing, much more in a theosophical way than in a religious one. It was there that I developed my interest in other ayahuasca religions. The work with ayahuasca I realize is already about 35 years old and with the Barquinha ofJi-Paraná I’ve already worked 28 years. At the time I was from another Rio Branco Center, so since 1989 I worked in Barquinha and since 1985 I drank ayahuasca (I drank for four years in UDV). I have worked with prisoners since October 2012.
How many prisoners have you given ayahuasca to?
Inmates who came through the NGO ACUDA (Associação Cultural e de Desenvolvimento do Apenado e Egresso) numbered from 60 to 80, but we selected the ones with the best treatment response to ayahuasca. Some others came but did not drink ayahuasca. They were part of the ayahuasca world in the sense of doctrines because they were not obliged to drink, so many came and did not drink. But those who drank continued to drink and became interested in drinking. But it was around 80, not to mention some of the distressed ones who were sometimes outlaws or sometimes people who came from other places who asked me to drink. I am the church, I am a priest, and I am a confessional. I cannot deny it, so I answered and gave them the direction they needed.
Could you tell us how the work is done?
Works of moral instruction, explanation of the psalms, esoteric instructions, humanistic instructions, and moral instructions are held on Wednesdays, and we do charity work on Saturdays. So it depends, the work also has an annual calendar. We do the vast majority of the holy days of the Catholic Church and some of the saints’ feast days. There are three recesses in the year of 20 days that come after some pilgrimages. When the inmates came, we received 10 a week. During the month there were four sessions. We held the meetings in the church headquarters, and we do not do meetings outside the nucleus, outside the center, outside the church. What we do when I go to Porto Velho are reunions, but I do not do spiritual sessions. The duration depends a lot on the duration of each hymn, because there are some sections that have 12 hymns, while some have 18 hymns; it depends on the celebration and on a number of things. So it all depends a lot on what you are going to do and how you are going to do it. To perform the Sabbath (the Sabbath is a healing session), there are hymns appropriate for each one of them.
How many people are involved in the organization?
Everyone organizes, everyone participates. Sometimes it’s 80, sometimes 180. It depends on the day and on the event. There are events here that have 300 people, and there are events of our daily life (Saturdays) when there are 60 people. And we celebrate depending on the time of the year. We receive people from all over Brazil and the world. Right now there are carnival retreats, and people come from various places; several therapists come to contribute with people who come to learn from the people who come to contribute, distribute, and share their knowledge. So it’s really hard to say how many people exactly are involved in the organization of the mission. I’m just the leader, the last scout of the Barquinha, but Barquinha needs all kinds of people. We value everyone from the janitor to the master. Everyone here has a role and is important in that role.
What is the dose used in the rituals?
We give very little to novices because we do not want them to feel psychedelic effects or anything that scares them. We want them to get into the ritual. The dose varies from person to person. There are 100 kg people who take 40 ml and 40 kg people who take 100 ml, so it varies greatly from person to person. Ayahuasca is a chemical that has its metabolism, and every organism has a reaction, a specific sensitivity. There is no formula to do it. “Five buckets of that, 15 buckets of leaves.” This does not exist! Because it’s all intuitive; everything is spiritual. The same way that we have the intuition to do it, we also receive feedback to grow our intuition from the reunions. You have to observe how much you can give each person. If it is the first time for a visitor who has never been to our house, often he feels no effect because we do not want him to go into a trance without knowing the house, without knowing the rhythm of the house; we have to be careful with that. When it is an experienced drinker who already comes from other religions, nevertheless we give a sufficient dose so that he can be well without great deep trips in order to appreciate the doctrine. Ayahuasca to us is not religion—it is secondary, only an instrument. So with respect to the dose, it is variable. Even for children who come to drink, we also have a weaker ayahuasca, but we give a very small dose in accordance with the parents.
Are there other therapies that are associated with the ayahuasca ritual?
We conduct it like this: therapies are made by professionals. Then the person drinks ayahuasca in a religious ritual. Do not mix one thing with another. If no therapy is given, there is no therapy within the ritual. We address the topics of therapy, address what has often been spoken of in therapy, but in a religious manner. We address it in the form of doctrine, in the form of lecture, and in the form of a sermon, which addresses esoteric matters, therapeutic issues, and psychotherapeutic matters. We have a didactic that we have already learned from the therapy instructors, and we put these elements within the doctrine, inside the lecture. Therapy and religious ayahuasca are a perfect marriage. And sometimes people do therapy as if it were a retreat; the inmates do therapy during the day, and at night we do a religious ritual that will amalgamate the therapy they had during the day. The memory of therapy will be present, and people who know it make a point of touching on these points as family, as moral conduct, as fidelity, as filial love, as blind love, as blind fidelity—all the things that therapy addresses, but as a complement. So within our religious world there is no other element than ayahuasca and doctrine.
How are inmates selected to participate in the ritual? What is the profile of these people, and what prisons do they come from?
Selection is not what I do; it is the NGO ACUDA that selects those who are fit. I demand that people have six months to a year of various therapies and their screening of behavior by absorption ability. Those with psychiatric illness can watch the work, but they cannot drink ayahuasca. When someone comes from the psychiatric sector we put them together with everyone; they live with everyone.
The inmates mingle between us and the people who come, and sometimes people do not know who is an inmate and who is not. Only we who work with them know, but visitors and other people always come and talk to them as if they were talking to a person who attends our house, as the common brother of the house who is a frequent guest. The intention is reinsertion in society without prejudice, without pre-judgment. We mix them, ask them to sit together and to make friends, to be integrated, to share and observe. Actually, this is a job of observation and attention with them. It is a way of treating them with dignity; they are already saddled in prison. They have to feel free to be able to value freedom. This is also a kind of therapy on its own, so that they can see freedom in all things.
I worked at ACUDA with the men of the closed, open, and semi-open regime* at that time. Today I only work with the semi-open in Porto Velho and also without rituals because they are forbidden to come to Ji-Paraná. It is not forbidden to use ayahuasca and to attend church; it is forbidden for them to come from Porto Velho, mainly personnel from the closed regime. I do not have access to the closed regime because the judiciary wants me to attend to them there in the prison, and that I do not do. I cannot work outside our center; outside our church no ritual is done. What I do is a meeting at a house of a military police commander who provides his house to us to meet the semi-open who wear the wristband (apparatus to keep track of inmates out of prison) and want to go. There are three prisons where they are located: Aruanda, Ênio Pinheiro, and Urso Branco.
* In Brazil there are three types of imprisonment. Those who are sentenced to a term of more than eight years’ imprisonment face the closed regime; they cannot leave prison. Those sentenced to a sentence of more than four and less than eight years are subject to a semi-open regime and can be housed in collective places. A convict who is not a recidivist and is sentenced to less than four years’ is eligible for the open regime, which is like house arrest, where the person works during the day but must spend the rest of the time at home with a device to track movement.
How did you come up with the idea of giving ayahuasca to inmates? Why prisoners?
I was contacted in 2012 by the director of ACUDA, Luiz Martino, bringing ex-offenders who worked with him, and I promptly accepted. He was startled that I accepted and asked me why I had. I replied, “It is a question of consistency. If I am a Christian and Christ said that he came to criminals and rebels, how can I condemn them?” It would be hypocritical if I said that I am a Christian. Obviously it has conditions. “If they meet the criteria,” I told him, “I’ll do it.”
The first criterion: I have to get to know the work ACUDA does to help the inmates. Second, if they hadn’t done therapy for six months to a year, I do not accept them. Ayahuasca does not cure everything. Ayahuasca is not the panacea. It is a religious instrument. And there are many people who have psychological problems that need therapy and ayahuasca to help them understand the therapy. And it’s the same way with distress; there are many people who think that only by drinking ayahuasca they will be free of problems. No, ayahuasca is an antidepressant and anxiolytic, but it has a whole procedure. Sometimes people take antidepressant medication but live creating problems and difficulties and do not accept instructions. So ayahuasca does not solve their lives. It’s necessary to have a little education, a little restraint, a little bit of control, and to acquire other habits. Ayahuasca provides instruments and conditions, opening fields of expansion of the mind for you to understand.
What was the process to get this job done? Did you have to comply with the bureaucracy? How did you convince the prison directors that it would be a good thing? And how was the conversation with the inmates?
I did not have to comply with bureaucracy. ADCUDA dealt with the bureaucracy, and ACUDA talked to the directors of the prisons. The conversation with the inmates was that they were doing more than one therapy. As to the conversation with inmates, I tell them that ayahuasca is universalistic, and that God is love, and the only thing He wants from the human being is dignity, living with dignity, with respect and consideration for each other. What religion does not say that? It is not about Christ, about Buddha, about Krishna, about Brahma. It’s about the human being, about the Son of God, about creation, and not Creator. The conversation with them is this: “I’m not here to convert you. I’m not here to give you a religion. I’m not here to demand that you be religious. I’m here for you to understand what you’re doing inside the prison, what it is doing to your life, what therapy is doing with you, and ayahuasca is here to expand those thoughts. I do not want you to believe what I say but that you think about what I say.”
Why did you decide to do this job with prisoners?
This idea came from the ACUDA who came to me, and I readily accepted it. Why inmates? Why not? Prisoners are human beings. They could be convicts, could be murderers. I know a business administrator who is a thief. I know businessmen who are murderers. I know politicians who are swindlers, drug traffickers. The convict is a human being who has been convicted of a crime he committed or did not commit, but usually committed. How many thieves, murderers, and criminals are there? There are far more criminals out of jail, that is, not incarcerated, than criminals in jail. So criminals in general, we all are. Each one commits a crime with conformity to the intensity of his/her life, in accordance with the living, the circumstances in which he/she lives, and there are those that the judicial system has convicted. This is the convict; they are ordinary people. Many who are living with me who are not incarcerated are as guilty as or more guilty than those who are incarcerated.
How do you feel when you do this work?
I love what I do, be it with prisoners, with delinquents, or drug addicts, whoever it is. I love serving ayahuasca, I love working on ayahuasca, and it’s the job of my life. Although I have my livelihood outside work, ayahuasca is my life. Before working with the natives I worked in the technology sector of a company. I left everything to work with the Indians because of the situation they are in. I am already old, almost 60 years old, and it is time to give it back to nature because ayahuasca is from the forest and belonged initially to the Indians, to the native people. So I also want to make my contribution. Today I work with newly contacted Indians; I do not want people contacted 100 years ago, 150 years ago, who already have complete Western habits and have already lost 90 percent of their culture. The few who are preserved include Indigenous theatrical cultures that are not theirs. In the case of the people of Acre state a great majority is all theater. Ninety percent of what they say is not really their culture, because their culture has more than 100 years of contact. I sought newly contacted people, and among them there is a contact with their uncontacted relatives, isolated people. The culture is still very tender, very soft, very old and well preserved. So it was a choice I made because then I can see in those villages that drink ayahuasca, with the exception of the Ashaninkas, how much is theatrical, how superficial it is, and how much of other cultures they are. I make the ayahuasca a life direction. I love what I do and I learned from the best masters of ayahuasca, with people who have character and personality and are humanists.
I usually say that in what they say that is traditional is just the rituals; the traditional ayahuasca ideal has been lost. Today there is talk about money, fame, applause, power, expansion. And these expansionist religions want what Paulo Freire speaks of: the dream of the oppressed is to be the oppressor; the dream of the poor is to be rich. And throughout history we know that. When I attended the UDV, it was very small and had no more than 1,000 members, and today it has around 70,000. When it had 1,000 members, what it wanted was to be respected, and it fought against prejudice. Today it is the most prejudiced religion, which dictates the rule, the one that wants to control ayahuasca. And so are all these religions, because they want to be masters of ayahuasca. They want to exclude the Indians, the original people, because they hold the right to use religiously in the name of God. And in fact they are oppressors who were oppressed, and history repeats itself. It was always so in Christianity. When it was oppressed it wanted to be respected, and it fought against prejudice. My struggle is against the fundamentalism of ayahuasca, against the false traditionalism, and especially against the theater that exists. So that’s why I’m a humanist entity, working with philosophy and theosophy because I see that religion is very hypocritical, and I do not believe in religion without science. Religion with science is spirituality. When religion has no science it becomes religion only. But when the two are united there is spirituality. Every religion that wants to impose its will in the name of God is oppressive and denies science; there is no spirituality without science.
What do these people report after using the tea?
They come to see themselves inside the ayahuasca experience as their victims saw them. I have received cases of firearm or knife crimes, and they report feeling the pains of the wounds, these are very deep reports. There are cases that obviously cannot be published because of the intensity, the depth within. So the great power of ayahuasca is precisely that—to make you go to a field where you and your conscience are one, where you have no hiding place, no mask, no archetype, no persona. It is you and your soul, you and your consciousness, you and your core, you and your deep and primary ego.
We keep monitoring at a distance from those on the street who are working (in the semi-open regime) so that we do not “choke” the person. But they have behaved very well, and when we do meetings they are invited and many attend. Others do not come, but they tell someone to come and say why they could not come. Those who attend often do not want to drink ayahuasca; we also respect them and they understand that we are treating them with dignity. It is not because they are ex-offenders or they are serving time, yet in a semi-open regime that they are required to undergo therapy again.
The great service of ayahuasca is precisely to give the person a vision of self-control. Without it, it is very difficult. So I’m here in Ji-Paraná, still serving, giving members of our church, our spiritual path, to attend prisons as volunteers. It is to create in these people a vision of unlinking religion from spirituality, and also to unlink this need to be trying to indoctrinate them and make them change their thinking. We have to show the way; they change if they want. We are giving freedom, at least this freedom, to them to think and choose. We show what their choices have done to them and show other choices and that they can have access to these other choices. But the freedom of choice is theirs. So basically, we continue to work differently, with limitations. When I do only a meeting, obviously we take ayahuasca; of course, we take ayahuasca. We talk, some hymns are sung. I say some because there is no way to do the whole ritual. We also attend to their condition, doing a preaching, as they say in the evangelical religion. We have a simple meeting, of course, because of our limitations. I cannot do the religious ritual in any place other than a sacred place.
As for the social impact, all religions of ayahuasca, all of them had prejudice and were against the ACUDA Barquinha project. The only one that was in favor was the CEJAR that is linked to the master Irineu but is independent. The Catholic church with two priests helped us, came here to learn about Barquinha, the work that we do with ACUDA. We received help from evangelical pastors of Ji-Paraná and Porto Velho. All of these people supported the project. The religions of ayahuasca do not. The UDV was against and would not accept it. Other Acre religions also did not accept. So the social impact of the project was very good, and this also caused a promoter here from Ji-Paraná, with the Public Ministry, to invite me to start an effort to raise awareness here in Ji-Paraná at the APAC, which is the Associação de Proteção e Assistência aos Condenados. She also wants to bring the methodology of ACUDA to help. And in the future, as we go forward with these volunteer and humanitarian works, maybe we can give ayahuasca, especially to the semi-open and conditional system. So it is step-by-step, but it is reverberating, and you know it echoes that vision worldwide. Spain and Italy have already invited me to do this methodology, to understand how ayahuasca works to serve people who are part of the world of crime and those who are deprived of their liberty. So the impact is positive, although small in the sense of the number of beneficiaries, prisoners I mean. But the benefit to society is immense because a criminal off the streets prevents 10 or 15 crimes from happening, and he also influences his family and others. So the impact is very big, very important, although it is done with small steps.
Finally, what are the plans or expectations for the future with this work?
I already have a definite position that I do not want to go to Porto Velho to do religious rituals because it completely eludes the content in our church and our church proposal. The project is precisely to bring the prisoners here. Since it is impossible for me to be able to help ACUDA (in Porto Velho), I am going to see if with APAC we could do the sessions here in Ji-Paraná. It has more conditions for prisoners to be watched, more conditions for me to help, and I can be more present here with APAC. It does not matter whether it’s ACUDA or APAC or any other association, I want to know the human beings involved in it. I do not work with ACUDA; I work with people who are in ACUDA. Here I do not work with APAC, I work with people who are part of the APAC world. So it doesn’t matter the association: “Ah, the ACUDA has ended.” No. My project is with the human beings. So if someone wants me to join a project to help with ayahuasca, I will. I’m not stuck with any organization. I give my support to everyone as much as possible. So my future project is to continue working with convicts and especially those in the closed regime who suffer the most. The deeper we go inside the wound, the easier it will heal— obviously, always with therapy first. It’s therapy, ayahuasca, therapy, ayahuasca, and so on.
Juliana Mendes Rocha is a registered nurse currently undertaking a Master's in mental health at Ribeirão Preto medical school - University of São Paulo. Depart. of neurosciences and behavioral sciences