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The Collapse of the Brazilian Penal System

By Jayme Brenner

[Editors Note: This article was translated by Paul Wright from El Dia Latinoamericano , a regional bi-weekly published in Mexico. While most American readers of PLN are familiar with the prison crisis facing the US, the fact is that virtually all of the capitalist countries are in the midst of a severe prison crisis as a result of relying on prisons as a means of social control for their populations. The result of neo liberal, "free trade" policies with the resulting impoverishment of large sectors of the world's population has created an explosion in prison systems around the world. The US prison crisis is just part of the puzzle .]

The report issued in May, 1993, by Amnesty International concerning the massacre of 111 detainees in the Carandiru prison in Sao Paulo uncovers a new chapter in the history of police violence in Brazil.

Beyond the considerable damage to the electoral pretensions of the Governor of Sao Paulo, Luis Antonio Fluery, who sought to present himself as a "centrist alternative" in the 1994 presidential elections, the situation around these events reveal a true collapse of the Brazilian penal system.

Sao Paulo.- In May, 1993, Amnesty International released a report on the massacre of 111 detainees in the Carandiru prison in Sao Paulo in October of 1992 [ PLN ,Vol. 4, No. 1 ]. The report claimed Luis Antonio Fluery, the Governor of the State of Sao Paulo, and Pedro Franco de Campos, his Secretary of Public Security, were responsible for the massacre by delivering command of the prison to the Militarized Police (MP), which is known for its brutality and responsibility for the majority of the violent deaths in Sao Paulo.

On October 2, 1992, police armed with machine guns occupied Pavilion 9 of the prison, the biggest one in Latin America where some 7,200 prisoners were held. Supposedly they were to put down a riot. In the days that followed it was learned that the operation consisted of a true cold blooded massacre.

Amnesty International also accused the government of Sao Paulo of concealing the dimensions of the tragedy. The massacre took place the day before the primary in municipal elections. Fluery Filho had his own candidate for the position of mayor of Sao Paulo and it is known that the first official reports talked about eight dead, as the true number could have altered the voting results. Up until now no soldier, police official or government representative has been punished. [ Editors Note: A large number of police and military officials were recently charged with crimes resulting from the massacre. PLN, Vol. 4, No. 5 ].

The tragedy of the collapse of the prison system goes beyond the borders of Carandiru. According to the Ministry of Justice, Brazil has over 127,000 prisoners held in conditions of overcrowding in the prisons; the deficit in the system is for 75,000 beds. Seventy five percent of the prisoners are being held for robbery or theft, a class of crime that is becoming all the more common due to the sharpening economic crisis.

"It is absurd to put someone who steals in prison and who, in contact with murderers and rapists, will be transformed into a true criminal," lawyer Alberto Silva Franco told El Dia Latinoamericano . Franco is a member of the commission currently studying the reform of the Brazilian penal code which was last revised in the 1940s. Franco cites the case of Marcos Sergio Ferreira who escaped from a police station in Sao Paulo where he was serving a prison sentence of 5 years for stealing a pair of slippers, a watch and the equivalent of ten dollars in currency.

The overcrowding causes a daily average of three escape attempts from prisons across Brazil. In Sao Paulo alone, 567 prisoners have escaped in the first four months of 1993. In 1992 there were 1,230 escapes in the state of Sao Paulo.

The biggest problem is not in the big prisons but in the police stations in the biggest cities of the country: Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte. These were built as provisional jails but with the overcrowding in the prisons they became "xadrezes" (prisons) on a permanent basis.

In Sao Paulo the jails have a capacity for 2,500 people but currently hold more than 6,000. One of the most dramatic examples occurs in the police station located in the very center of Sao Paulo. There, 163 prisoners live (or try to) in an area of 180 square meters. The cells are full and 49 of the prisoners have to sleep in the patio, which is open to allow sunshine and fresh air to enter. When it rains these 49 "prisoners without a roof", as Rubens Ferrari the police commissioner calls them, have to sleep by tying themselves to the bars of the cells which results in the near suffocation of those sleeping inside the cells.

"The real drama occurs on visiting days, when there are more than 300 people in the patio," says the prisoners' leader Alcaldes Tadeu Francisco, a strong, stocky black serving a sentence for pick-pocketing. "Our only alternative is to build a ladder." Each one of the prisoners talks with his family on one "floor" of the bars, he explains.

In the prisons' cells, eight people alternate to sleep on each bunk. Three of the prisoners suffer from AIDS and are literally rotting on the floor because there is no room for them in the prison hospital. Even under these conditions the harsh prison "ethics" guarantee that each prisoner will be able to have sexual relations when their woman visits them: the cellmates improvise a curtain and try to minimize violations of this poor privacy, even though love is produced in front of 300 people.

Another extreme case of overpopulation and inadequate prison installations, is in the police delegation of Guarulhos, a city of 800,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. The prison has a capacity for 72 prisoners but holds 360. The commissioner of police himself has requested that the building be condemned because underneath its floors there are 31 tunnels dug by the prisoners.

After each escape cement is poured into the entrance and exit of each tunnel. But the prisoners open new holes, taking advantage of parts of the old tunnels. Two years ago six prisoners escaped by urinating on the wall until the cement was weakened.

"We have carried out three escape atempts a day" says Ubirajara Lourenco, a drug trafficking "soldier" who is a prisoner in Sao Paulo and who cannot even walk well due to a poorly cured sexual disease.

According to the Ministry of Justice, 88 per cent of the prisoners in Brazil are illiterate or semi-literate, the majority of them are black. Prison employees receive a median salary of 90 to 200 dollars a month, which is an incentive for corruption.

In Guaralhos a group of prisoners escaped last year using a pistol provided by a policeman. The collapse of the state produces a constant reduction in the prison budgets and the growing violence widens popular sympathy for the adoption of the death penalty.

As long as there are no alternatives in sight to resolve the problems of Brazilian prisons, the prison commissioners count on a new possibility to avoid escapes or riots: to vigorously search the cells, sometimes daily, of all the prisons and jails.

On visiting days families can no longer bring plates of closed pasta, like ravioli or capeletti, due to the frequency of which contraband such as marijuana and cocaine were found in their interior. With greater frequency drugs are the currency used in the corruption of employees. Cans of soda pop are prohibited because they can be made into knives. But this does not represent a real solution. The detainees in the prisons of Belo Horizonte have threatened to renew the sinister "lottery of death." In 1985 the prisoners of the city killed 11 fellow detainees to protest overcrowding.

Since then little has changed.

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