Brazilia: inmates compete for the title of Miss Penitentiary

Like beauty pageant contestants everywhere, Caroline Goncalves hoped a victory could launch her modeling career. But she'd be satisfied if it helps shave some time off her prison sentence.

"This will put me a little closer to getting out of here," the 25-year-old convict said Thursday as stylists tugged at her long blond hair and put the finishing touches on her penciled-in eyebrows.

The sweltering heat inside the Carandiru women's detention center was only made worse by the dozens of hair dryers working overtime, but the 40 contestants from 10 prisons around Sao Paulo didn't seem to mind.

The women, serving sentences for everything from armed robbery to drug trafficking, were vying to be named Miss Penitentiary 2005 a title that brings a 350-real (US$160, Ђ135) prize and a break from dreary routine.

"Afterward, we're going to be able to talk to people from (fashion) magazines," said a clearly nervous Goncalves, who is serving five years and four months for assault with a deadly weapon.

Last year's winner, Fernanda Maria de Jesus, gained early release months after her victory, but prison officials insist the shortened sentence had nothing to do with her winning the title.

Prison officials came up with the idea of a beauty contest last year as a way of trying to boost inmates' self confidence. "It helps their self esteem. It helps them feel human. It shows that they're capable people, that independent of the crime, they are a part of society," said Irani Torres, director of a prison in the city of Rio Claro.

The contest is actually more than just a beauty pageant. Judges include celebrities, soccer players and journalists, and there are prizes in three other categories including writing, public speaking and congeniality.

But one of the contestants in the writing competition, 23-year-old Viviane Souza, complained that the beauty pageant winner gets all the attention, including appearances on television shows.

"Last year they just showed the beauty contest winner. Why not show the ones who wrote, the ones who used their minds?" asked Souza, who hopes to become a journalist when she finishes her 21-month sentence for drug dealing.

Even so, many were glad for the chance to let their hair down or to fix it up.

"I'm not bothered by the attention the beauty contest (winner) receives," said Maria Aparecida de Almeida, 39. "She is raising the banner for all of us. She's a prisoner and she managed to make it. She helps all of us." Peru and Colombia also hold beauty contests in prisons. Sao Paulo's is one of the largest, drawing from its female population of almost 4,000 inmates, AP reports. P.T.

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