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Brazil’s prisons: A fate worse than death?


This post provides more detail about Pedrinhas prison, described in Jan Rocha’s blog post ‘The Marie Antoinette of Maranhão’ and describes the dire conditions in the entire penitential system in Brazil, which, argues the writer, not only endanger the public but also threaten the very integrity of state institutions and democratic processes.

The death of a little girl has highlighted the hellish conditions of Brazil’s penitentiary system

The ongoing horror story in Maranhão, in the northeast of Brazil, makes for some of the most disturbing reading you are likely to encounter from outside an official warzone. On January 3  criminals acting on an order given from the Pedrinhas prison complex in São Luis attacked four city buses, killing Ana Clara Santos Souza, a six-year old girl, who died after suffering burns over 95% of her body. Her younger sister, of just a year and five months, and her mother, were both hospitalized. The sister has now been released but her mother remains in a critical condition in the burns unit of a Brasília hospital. If that were not enough, the great-grandfather of the girls suffered a heart attack and died upon hearing the news. Just days later, a video was published on the website of the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, taken by prisoners in Pedrinhas. The video shows the mutilated corpses of three prisoners following a riot at the complex. Severed heads rest on two of the bodies. Reports have also emerged that the visits of wives and sisters were occurring in communal cells, with the women being forced into sex with gang members in order to keep their relatives alive. The National Justice Council quickly published a report criticizing the state government of Roseana Sarney, alleging that the situation was completely out of control, and Maranhão found itself obliged to accept help from the federal government, transferring some of Pedrinhas’ most dangerous inmates to federal prisons outside the state. Meanwhile, the military police and the national security force were sent into Pedrinhas to try to re-establish order. The firebombed bus and a photo of Ana Clara Santos SouzaSince the attacks on the city buses, the crisis in Maranhão has been in the news on a daily basis. However, the disgraceful conditions at Pedrinhas and other prisons in the state are, in a sense, not news at all. ‘It was the state government that allowed things to get to this point,’ says Edivaldo Holanda Junior, the mayor of São Luis. ‘It’s been coming for years. It’s not something which only exploded now – Pedrinhas has been showing signs of this for years.’ Such signs include the violent deaths of at least 62 prisoners since last year – a national record – with many of the bodies being decapitated and showing signs of torture. The prison is also badly overcrowded, with 2,500 men occupying a space originally intended for just 1,700. Prisoners sleep in groups of 250-300 together as bars on individual cells have been removed. There are damaged walls and pipes, and the complex is barely capable of providing inmates with food and water. There are also reports of prisoners with contagious diseases mixing with other prisoners. All of these problems and more have been successively denounced over the last ten years or so by the Public Prosecutor’s Office – and the state government did nothing. The current governor of the state is Roseana Sarney, daughter of ex-president José Sarney, one of the old-style Brazilian ‘colonels’, corrupt and powerful oligarchs who carved up large slices of Brazil’s rural northeast, amassing vast amounts of personal wealth in the process. Roseana, herself implicated in a number of corruption scandals, is very much a chip off the old block. Documents leaked by WikiLeaks in 2009 revealed that she had, in 1999, R$150 million hidden in an account in the Cayman Islands (that money would be worth more than double that today). And last Tuesday (January 14), a request for criminal action against her was filed with the Prosecutor General, relating to her involvement in a hospital building scheme in Maranhão, in which construction contracts were awarded to companies who contributed millions of reais to her re-election campaign in 2010. Needless to say, the decades-long influence of the Sarney family over the state of Maranhão has done little to benefit the citizens of the state. At 12.9%, Maranhão’s rate of extreme poverty is the highest of all Brazil’s 26 states, and is nearly four times the national average. The state represents just 1.3% of Brazilian GDP, despite the fact that with nearly 6.8 million inhabitants, it accounts for 3.4% of the total population. 20.8% of Maranhão’s population aged 15 and above is illiterate, compared to a national average of 8.7%, a figure which has actually grown under Sarney’s governorship. Life expectancy in the state is also Brazil’s lowest and a baby born in Maranhão today can expect to live over eight years less than a child born in Santa Catarina in the south of the country. Furthermore, homicide rates have more than quintupled over the last decade. If by now it is clear that Sarney could not care less about the people she is charged with representing – even those who work, vote and pay taxes – then this is doubly true of her attitude towards Maranhão’s prison population. Her government did not even bother to rebut the accusations of the public prosecutors and health inspectors who visited Pedrinhas. Instead, she merely complained that federal courts should not poke their nose into state business. Of course, the scale of the current crisis has forced the government’s hand, and the problem is now a federal one. Meanwhile, the story has gone international, receiving coverage in The Daily Telegraph, The Economist and The New York Times, and the situation has drawn criticism from the United Nations’ High Commission for Human Rights and from Amnesty International. The UN statement had an air of resignation about it: ‘We lament having to once again express concern with the terrible state of prisons in Brazil, and we appeal to the authorities to restore order in Pedrinhas and in other prisons in the country.’ Meanwhile, Amnesty published a statement urging ‘initiatives to reduce current overcrowding, guarantee the security of those in state custody, and investigate and find those responsible for the deaths both inside the prison and out.’ Given the level of public outrage following the death of Ana Clara, there are those who are perplexed – even infuriated – with the concern for the human rights of Maranhão’s prison population. One such voice is the senator Edison Lobão Filho, who said that the concern for prisoners’ human rights was ‘mistaken’, and ‘the absolute priority of the [human rights] commission has to be with the victims.’ Not everyone in Pedrinhas was responsible for the attacks on the buses. Alongside hardened criminals and gang members there are people who should not even be there: men who have been awaiting trial for months or years, sometimes for relatively minor crimes, as well as those who have served their sentences but have yet to be released. Yet aside from this, Lobão Filho’s complaints betray a total lack of understanding of the concept of human rights. Human rights are supposed to be universal. One cannot, in Lobão Filho’s words, ‘prioritize’ the human rights of certain individuals over others. Human rights activists are often accused of defending the indefensible, of legitimizing the crimes of people who may have done terrible things. But not one person has attempted to defend those involved in the attacks on the city buses in São Luis. Read the Amnesty statement again: they condemn and urge the investigation of the attacks both inside Pedrinhas and out. Might this not be a case of you reap what you sow? Might not the appalling violence long practised by the state in Maranhão have something to do with the violence on the streets of São Luis? This is not to defend criminal actions, but to recognize and denounce violence in all its forms, understanding that violent actions usually produce violent reactions. The choice of targets by criminal organizations – police stations, public transport – is no coincidence. They consider themselves to be engaged in a legitimate war against the Brazilian state and particularly against repressive state apparatus such as the police. In short, in maintaining one of the world’s largest prison populations in such atrocious conditions, Brazil does not make itself any safer. On the contrary, it only creates further problems, some of which not only endanger the public but also threaten the very integrity of state institutions and democratic processes. In his book CV PCC – A Irmandade do Crime, the journalist Carlos Amorim details at great length how the principal criminal organizations of Rio and São Paulo, the Comando Vermelho (CV), and the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), grew and developed in the nation’s prisons, principally as a reaction against the appalling conditions in which prisoners found themselves. Borrowing strategies from political prisoners during the military dictatorship, the early bosses of the CV realized that it was only through solidarity and organization that they could hope to defend themselves against violence, both on the part of the police and prison staff, and on the part of other prisoners. Today, the CV and the PCC are two of the largest and most powerful criminal organizations in Latin America, making hundreds of millions of reais a year from drugs and arms trafficking, and in Amorim’s view, represent a quasi-existential threat to the Brazilian state. For a system of criminal justice to work, it is essential that it have at least a semblance of moral legitimacy. To achieve this it has to appear humane, fair and transparent. Unfortunately, Brazil’s seems to be brutal, arbitrary and corrupt, and most of those in prison know this from first-hand experience. Something is badly amiss when even Brazil’s own Minister of Justice, José Eduardo Cardozo, told a meeting of São Paulo business leaders, in November 2012, “I would rather die than than spend a long time in one of our prisons.’ Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, brutalized by his experience of the Belgian Congo, those in prison in Brazil exist in a world in which our everyday moral precepts have simply ceased to exist. In other words, they are people who have nothing to lose, and when you have nothing to lose, you are capable of anything.

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