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Brazilian Prisoners Receive Mind-altering Drugs to Modify their Behavior

In a controversial move, Brazilian prisoners convicted of murder and rape have been allowed to take a drug called dimethyltryptamine (DMT), in a drink known as Ayahuasca, as part of a spiritual rehabilitation program. Generally ingested in a liquid form with tea, the program is sponsored by Acuda, a prisoners’ rights organization that also provides “therapeutic sessions to inmates involving yoga and meditation,” according to The New York Times.

Ayahuasca, which has powerful psychoactive properties, has been used in an attempt to spiritually rehabilitate some of Brazil’s most violent criminals in one of the most overcrowded and violent prison systems in the world. Although some claim the drug can cause a strong reaction of mental introspection, others note that it may also result in serious illness and nausea.

Often consumed in elaborate tea ceremonies complete with musical accompaniment, dancing and singing, some people have praised the drug.

“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,” said Celmiro De Almeida, a convicted murderer.

Another prisoner, Darci Altair Santos da Silva, a sex offender, added, “I know what I did was very cruel. The tea helped me reflect on this fact, on the possibility that one day I can find redemption.”

“Many people in Brazil believe that inmates must suffer, enduring hunger and depravity,” observed Euza Beloti, a psychologist. “This thinking bolsters a system where prisoners return to society more violent than when they entered prison.”

Ayahuasca, which is made by brewing two plants that have been grown in the Amazon by native tribes for hundreds of years, is also available in the United States and Australia. The latter country has seen an ongoing debate about problems with its prison rehabilitative programs, caused by lack of funding and overcrowding. The drug’s growing popularity in Australia complicates the question of whether giving powerful hallucinogens to prisoners in an attempt to rehabilitate them is practicable or politically possible – but given high recidivism rates, it may be worth trying.

The U.S. prison system has had its own experience with hallucinogenic drugs. From 1961 to 1963, thirty-two prisoners at the Concord State Prison in Massachusetts received psilocybin in an experiment to determine whether the drug reduced recidivism rates. The study was directed by Dr. Timothy Leary. While the results were promising, the limited nature of the experiment was criticized in follow-up research that found only moderately improved recidivism rates for prisoners who received hallucinogens.

More recently, a study involving 25,000 people on community corrections, published in January 2014, found a link between hallucinogenic drug use and reduced recidivism rates.

“Our results provide a notable exception to the robust positive link between substance use and criminal behavior,” stated the study’s authors, with the University of Alabama and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“The current findings should not at all be interpreted as advocating for recreational hallucinogen use. Nevertheless, they demonstrate that, in a real-world, substance-related intervention setting, hallucinogen use is associated with a lower probability of poor outcome,” they concluded.


Sources: The New York Times,,,

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