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Brazil’s prisons: Covid-19 massacre imminent

Atrocious conditions and a culture of cover-up threaten the worst



Open and poorly treated wounds, food waste on the cell floor, rat faeces, little ventilation, water rationing, insects everywhere. While some inmates do not even get up from their beds, such is their weak state of health, others are stuck in wheelchairs. To wash one’s body or one’s hands or clean any object prisoners have to wait for a hole in the wall to release a dribble of water which is promptly saved in whatever receptacle can be obtained. An inmate shows us a clumsily-sown up wound while another, unable to get up from his bed, tells us of the pain caused by his tuberculosis.

Book by two of the authors, 2017

Far from being exceptional, this situation constitutes normality in Brazil’s prison system. And if the picture just described is intolerable, it is all the more terrifying when we realize it depicts an infirmary in the Centro de Detenção Provisória (Temporary Detention centre) in Vila Independência, in the eastern region of São Paulo, which we visited in March 2016.

Such is the death rate from illness in prisons that it resembles a massacre. In 2017, in the state of São Paulo alone, which accounts for a third of the country’s entire prison population, 484 of the 532 deaths registered by the Prisons Department (Secretaria de Administração Penitenciária SAP), were classified as due to ‘natural causes’. In overcrowded cells, with inadequate food, rationed water, a shortage of hygiene and sanitary products, and unreliable medical services, the spread of disease is not just alarming, it is lethal. These places are breeding grounds for infectious respiratory diseases like TB. It is no surprise that cases of TB have doubled in recent years, reaching 10,765 in 2018, practically twice the figure of 5,656 for 2009. If the rate of TB in prison is 35 times that in the rest of the population, the Coronavirus will probably cause proportionately more deaths inside the walls than outside them. Like TB, the conditions endured by men and women prisoners are ideal both for the spread of Covid-19 and at the same time render any sort of treatment or recovery impossible. The same conditions which make prisons hotspots for the spread of TB will, as far as can be seen, spur the circulation of the virus.

Covid-19 reaches the prisons

Rio de Janeiro was the first state to declare suspected coronavirus in its prison system. On March 16th, The Intercept published a message from the management of the Milton Dias Moreira Penitentiary in Japeri, in the suburban region of the baixada fluminense, to the State Prison Authority (Secretaria de Estado de Administração Penitenciária – SEAP) informing them of four suspected cases among the inmates. The governor, Wilson Witzel (of the Social Liberal Party) decided that prisoners with symptoms should be isolated but be kept within the facility – one of the most overcrowded in the state, designed for 884 but housing 2,583 prisoners, almost three times as many, in 2016.

Ygor Nogueira do Nascimento, aged 22, died in the Paulo Roberto Rocha Jail. Report in O Globo, 24 March 2020

On March 24th the Rio de Janeiro Forensic Service (Instituto Médico Legal – IML) suspended all autopsies on bodies of prisoners who had died ‘of natural causes’ in prison before the pandemic struck. Family members claim that the dead are being buried without anyone knowing the cause of death. For example, Ygor Nogueira do Nascimento, aged 22, died in the Paulo Roberto Rocha Jail, part of the Gericinó prison complex, in Rio’s western region. Not only did it take three days for his body to be released, but on his death certificate this young man, who was awaiting a court verdict, was described as having died of ‘unknown’ causes.

Recently, on March 31st, the National Justice Council and the Ministry of Health issued new burial and cremation guidance in the light of the pandemic. This decree authorizes health officials, in the absence of family members or people known to the deceased, to proceed with cremation or burial without formal registration of the death. If these guidelines are followed in the coming months, they open the way to a dangerous situation in which the usual procedures surrounding a person’s death remain unknown, with no diagnosis, no known cause of death and eventually without a death certificate attesting to the prior life of the dead person. Furthermore, it is well known that bodies are frequently buried and classified as ‘indigent or ‘unclaimed’ even when family members are looking for them, simply because the institutions of the state have not contacted the dead person’s next-of-kin. It is already difficult for a relative to find a prisoner in the prison system, and now, by allowing burial without a death certificate, the state will be able turn prisoners who die in the prisons into disappeared persons.

Mass escape of prisoners from Mongaguá prison

Temporary release

On 16th March, in São Paulo, the Prisons Department and the Corregedoria Geral da Justiça (which oversees the administration of Justice and acts as Inspectorate of Prisons) suspended temporary release permits in its semi-open prisons. The decision led to the escape of more than a thousand inmates from prisons in the municipalities of Mongaguá, Tremembé, Mirandópolis, Porto Feliz and Sumaré. Following the escape inhabitants of Mongaguá reported finding dead bodies in the area surrounding the prison, presumably executed by the security forces.

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In the early morning of March 29th two men died in the José Parada Neto Penitenciary in Guarulhos after experiencing shortness of breath. Nurses and prison wardens suspect that they had Covid-19, but the death certificates filled in by the police classified them as ‘death from natural causes’ and the state government did not include them in the statistics of deaths from coronavirus.

Already on March 16th the National Prisons Department (Departamento Penitenciário Nacional – DEPEN) suspended of all visits to federal prisons and during the following week 97 per cent of state prison authorities did the same and cancelled temporary release from semi-open jails. On March 18th the Ministry of Justice recommended that states should arrange for special blocks for the isolation of prisoners suspected or confirmed to be suffering from Covid-19 thus creating a segregated space within a segregated space. Intentionally or not, this preventative strategy showed that the authorities have resigned themselves to the spread of prison contagion.

In response to the failure of the executive branch to take appropriate measures, civil society organizations have petitioned the judiciary to allow prisoners over 60, women who are pregnant or have young children, as well as those who suffer from heart or other diseases such as HIV and TB, to be allowed to await sentencing or continue their sentence under house arrest. Since then more than 5000 people have been released in various states including Bahia, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. Although this is a mere drop in the ocean compared to Brazil’s prison population of 700,000, the federal government, instead of supporting, speeding up and broadening the implementation of these measures, has been determined to stop them, thus preparing the outbreak of a veritable massacre in prisons throughout the country.

How to create a breeding-ground for infection

By adopting as its central policy the redoubling of isolation through the suspension of prison visits and temoporary release, the prison authorities have enclosed an area within which the illness will spread at high speed – prison officers and basic equipment, all potential carriers of the virus, will continue to enter the prisons which, of their very nature, will be become breeding grounds for its further spread. The establishment within the institution’s area, of a segregated but contaminated lockdown space, where the paltry medical care available to prisoners generally will be provided, takes us back to the times of lepers’ colonies – in other words to segregation designed to prepare the victims for death. These measures will further intensify the slaughter which has been operating for some time in Brazil’s prisons, by creating yet another layer of opacity covering up the causes of death and, at the extreme, the very existence of the dead.

Main image: Brazil’s Overcrowded Prisons. Image: Telesur TV

Fabio Mallart is a post-doctoral fellow at the State University of Rio de Janeiro

Rafael Godoi is a post-doctoral fellow at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

Ricardo Campello has a PhD from the University of São Paulo

Fabio Araujo works at the Coordination of Social Cooperation of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation