The Sycamore Tree Project®

A Tribute to the Father of the APAC Prison Methodology

Dr. Mario Ottoboni | Brazil

Dan Van Ness

We’re saddened by the recent death of Dr. Mario Ottoboni, who made significant contributions in the area of restorative justice through the creation of the APAC Methodology. Dr. Ottoboni was an inspiration to many. He leaves a Christ-filled legacy of hope, healing, and redemption for our imprisoned brothers and sisters. His loss will be greatly felt throughout the Prison Fellowship International family. Let us celebrate his life and thank God for his testimony of love and visionary leadership.

Nearly 30 years ago, I visited the Humaita Prison in São José dos Campos, a leading industrial city in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, as part of a research team led by Dave Van Patten, Prison Fellowship International’s current chief operations office. Recently, I flipped through the pages of the report our team produced after that trip. And I remembered the powerful impact the trip had on the team. We witnessed the revolutionary prison methodology emerging there, the Association to Aid and Protect Prisoners (APAC), created by the remarkable man, Dr. Mário Ottoboni, who was the peaceful presence at the center of it all. APAC was named after the organization Dr. Ottoboni and other Christian leaders had created to do this work.

The research team and I were sent to Brazil by an American businessman who had visited the prison several months earlier.

“This is a prison run by and for God,” he said. “What makes it work? And could it be replicated in the United States?” he wondered.

Based on what we saw, we confirmed that it produced remarkable transformations in prisoners, but it had not grown in a petri dish with carefully constructed purpose statements, strategic analyses, and logic models. Dr. Ottoboni and his leadership team had asked prisoners what they needed and listened to their responses.

The APAC methodology emerged organically, over time, in that small prison. Certain features were considered essential, like the absence of prison guards and any other paid staff. But those were manifestations—not building blocks—of the methodology. When we asked what core principle made it work, the consistent answer Dr. Ottoboni gave was, “Love.”

When we asked, “How many paid staff members do you have,” the answer was, “There are no paid staff. The prison is run entirely by community volunteers and by the prisoners themselves. We do not accept payment, so when prisoners ask why we are here, they will believe us when we tell them we love them.”

To Dr. Ottoboni, love was not sentimental, or easy. He meant the costly, self-giving, take-up-your-cross, agape love Jesus demonstrated and demanded of his followers. It was exhibited every time a community volunteer spent the night at the prison rather than at home. This kind of love persisted despite the strong opposition to the APAC methodology mounted by police and corrections personnel who found themselves denied bribes customarily paid by prisoners and their families to provide basic services. This love even endured the martyrdom of Dr. Franz de Castro Holzwarth, a close friend of Dr. Ottoboni’s. Dr. Holzwarth was one of the early APAC leaders, who successfully negotiated the end of a prisoner uprising and hostage-taking in a nearby city. As he and the prisoners emerged from that prison with upraised hands, Dr. Franz de Castro and the prisoner leaders were killed in a hail of police gunfire.

We next asked, “Why do prisoners help you run the prison?” Dr. Ottoboni explained, “They need to know we trust them because, one day, they will be released into the community and will need to be worthy of trust by then. We love them. If they make a mistake, we tell them they can try again.”

“When prisoners arrive, we welcome them to their new home. We take off their steel handcuffs and put on handcuffs of love. Many prisoners volunteer for the program thinking they will escape—but few make the attempt. Those who do escape usually return in a few days. Why is the prison so clear? Because this is the prisoners’ home and they want to live in beautiful surroundings. This is how they love themselves, each other, and visitors like you.”

In discussing the cause of crime, Dr. Ottoboni stated, “Our prison psychiatrist says, ‘Crime is the violent and tragic refusal to love.’ We are born out of love and we are born to love. But love must be learned, just like speaking and writing. The place to learn how to love is the home. But sometimes our families fail us and when that happens, the result can be crime. The solution to crime is to teach prisoners to love. That is the purpose of APAC. We create an environment in which they learn to love themselves, each other, and the communities they live in. As we see them grow, we give them responsibilities to show we trust them and to prove we are right to trust them. Once men have been loved and have learned to love they will not go back to crime.”

Dr. Ottoboni’s love for prisoners around the world caused him to generously give the APAC methodology to anyone willing to use it, including the next generation of prison ministry leaders, led by Valdeci Ferreira, executive director of Prison Fellowship Brazil. Because of that, Dr. Ottoboni’s legacy continues.

Shortly before our research team returned to the United States, one of our members asked Dr. Ottoboni, “After you die, what is the first thing God will say to you?” Dr. Ottoboni laughed and said, “God will say, ‘You never thought you would arrive here, but it’s no mistake. Here you are and I love you.’”