Brazil’s prisons still “ticking time bombs”

Monday 24 July 2017, a riot breaks out at the Pinheiros Provisional Detention Centre in the city of São Paulo. Already suffering from serious overcrowding, the inmates rebel when two new groups of prisoners arrive, setting fire to their mattresses. The incident lasted no more than a few hours and this image was captured by a drone. Pic by Gustavo Basso/EqualTimes
São Paulo, Brazil

The images of the clashes and massacres in Brazilian jails that reached Europe a few months ago were met with shock and horror. Yet the bloody settling of scores between members of rival gangs, the riots and the jailbreaks are only the tip of the iceberg.

Imagine being locked up in no more than a few square metres with 25 other people. Some of your fellow inmates have been there for several months, without seeing a single judge. Others have already served their sentence, in theory, but judicial administration is so slow that they are still waiting to be released.

Overcrowding, violence, injustice, Emerson Ferreira experienced all of them, for four and a half years. He has shared his story with the public, through an immersive experience organised by the advocacy network Rede Justiça Criminal (Criminal Justice Network).

In April 2017, in São Paulo, curious and brave passers-by were able to go behind bars and, thanks to a 360º virtual reality headset, experience a typical Brazilian prison cell, whilst listening to chilling testimonies from inmates.

“A stray dog would have more room on the street than us,” says one prisoner. “Put a horse in the same space and it would go crazy. It would let itself die. Only human beings are able to endure such a thing,” adds another.

“We want to bring an end to mass imprisonment,” clamours the Realidade Visceral(Visceral Reality) campaign launched by this network bringing together several human rights organisations.

The aim behind the device and the meeting with Emerson is to give people real insight into the inhumane conditions. The participants emerge from the experience visibly moved. The message has a greater impact than the figures alone.

Yet the figures themselves are already alarming. There are almost 667,000 prisoners in Brazil, including 24,000 children and adolescents. It is the fourth-largest prison population in the world. The problem of overcrowding in Brazil’s prisons is growing worse every year, with the average occupancy rate reaching 167 per cent in 2017.

According to Human Rights Watch, the number of prisoners rose by 85 per cent between 2004 and 2014.

This mass incarceration began in the wake of a law, passed by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2006, increasing jail time for drug traffickers and leaving open the possibility of users being prosecuted as traffickers.

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“This dramatic increase clearly undermines prisoners’ fundamental rights,” underlines Père Valdir João Silveira, national coordinator of the prison pastoral care organisation Pastoral Carcerária.

This social action organisation, linked to the Catholic Church, supports prisoners who do not have access to the vital minimum, and provides them with medicine or clothing. The prison chaplains observe the overcrowding, the poor nutrition and sanitary conditions every day.

The UN recently described some Brazilian prisons as “medieval”.

Repression rather than prevention

Legal rights are also often violated, with four out of 10 detainees currently being held on remand, in other words, without a trial. Some have to wait for several months or even years before knowing what the charges are and to hear their sentence passed.

This is the case for Lídia’s son, Rogério (his name has been changed), who has been in the Pinheiros Provisional Detention Centre in São Paulo for over a year. Arrested for drug use, the young man has not yet been before a judge.

“I’m at my wits’ end with our justice system. And yet there are good lawyers, who are active in human rights organisations. I really don’t know who to turn to next,” his mother tells Equal Times.

Lídia goes to visit her son every Saturday and takes him a “jumbo”, a kind of basic provisions kit, with toiletries, groceries and some items of clothing not provided by the prison.

The Pinheiros Provisional Detention Centre is one of the most overcrowded in Brazil. In 2016, it reached an occupancy rate of 250 per cent. It is in São Paulo, the state that imprisons the most people. There are around 230,000 prisoners out of a population of 42 million. By way of comparison, in Argentina, where the population is roughly the same, there are 70,000 prisoners.

For many observers, this incarceration policy clearly does nothing to curb the level of crime and violence, given that Brazil holds the world record for homicides, with almost 60,000 violent deaths a year.

The rate of murder cases solved is, moreover, very low. Only eight per cent of perpetrators are identified and convicted.

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“Rather than focussing their efforts on preventing, investigating and prosecuting homicides, prisons are being filled with minor offenders,” underlines Rafael Custódio, a human rights lawyer with the NGO Conectas.

Petty offenders are then recruited by organised crime groups, since most prisons are now run by gangs. “To survive on the inside, under such conditions, inmates need to turn to the networks and the money of armed factions,” explains Père Valdir.

And that’s how we end up with tragedies such as the massacres seen in January, involving rival gangs in prisons in the Amazon region and the Northeast, in which inmates were tortured, mutilated and decapitated. The death toll rose to hundreds within a matter of days.

The response of Michel Temer’s government has been to propose increased investment into the prison system, to the tune of 1.8 billion reals ($US59 million) and the construction of five new high security jails.

“They prefer to build prisons – which provide an opportunity for corruption, with a share of the public money disappearing in the process – because politicians insist on carrying on with a systematic incarceration policy. And yet alternatives are available, but they are not put into action,” explains Henrique Apolinário, also a lawyer for Conectas.

The Departamento Penitenciário Nacional (National Prison Service) has, in fact, invested in 30,000 electronic tags that are not being used. “The governors are only interested in winning votes. There is no interest in adopting adjusted sentencing.

“Our prisons are still ticking time bombs. We already know there will be another massacre before long,” says Henrique Apolinario.

But it should not be forgotten that not all massacres are bloody. “There are also the silent massacres. At a prison in Rio, almost 40 prisoners died for want of medical care,” he adds.

Human rights organisations have, for several years now, been calling for an amendment of the law on drugs, which locks up the small fry – many of whom are women – and boosts organised crime.”

But for now, this does not appear to be a priority for Brazil’s political leaders.

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