Brazil’s powder keg prison system

Violence at Pedrinhas Prison Complex highlights the nation’s severely overcrowded penitentiaries.

A recent report showed at least 60 inmates in Pedrinhas prison were killed in 2013 [REUTERS]

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – A video of three decapitated bodies after a riot at a Brazilian jail has exposed a reality long denounced by human rights groups and known by inmates’ families: Brazil’s prison system is a powder keg that can explode into more violence rather than prevent it.

The Pedrinhas Prison Complex, in the northern state of Maranhao, is the most recent example to catch the attention of the public after the release of a shocking video.

The video, which shows the remains of three men killed by fellow prisoners in Pedrinhas on December 17, was apparently recorded with a mobile phone by another inmate. The Folha de S Paulo newspaper released the video after a series of attacks against police stations and cars in the state capital Sao Luis, allegedly ordered from inside Pedrinhas Prison.

Four buses were burned in retaliation against the presence of the state military police who had been called in to restore control after earlier deadly riots. A six-year-old girl who was in one of the buses died from her injuries.

No reparation from the state for not guaranteeing my son's safety will bring him back. But I need money to provide education for the seven-year-old daughter he left.

by - Mother of slain prisoner

The Pedrinhas Prison currently holds 2,200 inmates in a space designed for 1,700. It is one of many overcrowded penitentiaries in Brazil, a country with the fourth largest prison population in the world and with 207,000 more inmates than its jail system was designed to hold.

A report released in December by the Brazilian National Council of Justice (CNJ) about conditions in Pedrinhas, showed at least 60 inmates were killed in 2013 inside the prison during power disputes between enemy gangs that control the complex.

It also stated that inmates were forced to allow faction leaders to rape their wives during conjugal visits, and the report denounced torture cases by public officials against prisoners.

Thirty-one-year old Ronald Santos Ferreira was one of the inmates killed last year in Pedrinhas. His mother, who chose not to reveal her name for safety reasons, told Al Jazeera over the phone that he was stabbed in the heart during a riot in October, only five days after he was sent to prison for the second time on drug trafficking charges.

“No reparation from the state for not guaranteeing my son’s safety will bring him back. But I need money to provide education for the seven-year-old daughter he left,” she said, not able to hold back her tears. “I know his case will be forgotten, like every other murder in Pedrinhas.”

The UN high commissioner for human rights reacted to the release of the CNJ report and the video by calling for a prompt, impartial and effective investigation into the prison killings and the prosecution of those found responsible. Human Rights Watch made a similar request.

“We regret having to, once again, express concern at the dire state of prisons in Brazil, and urge the authorities to take immediate action to restore order in Pedrinhas Prison and other prisons throughout the country, as well as to reduce overcrowding and provide dignified conditions for those deprived of liberty,” said the UN body in a statement.

Brazilan inmates ordering attacks on the outside

Federal intervention?

In Brazil, human rights organisations Conectas, Global Justice and Maranhense Human Rights Society (SMDH) called for federal intervention in Pedrinhas in order to guarantee a faster and more independent investigation of violations, as well as temporary federal management of the prison. CNJ has also issued other reports denouncing overcrowded conditions, as well as gang violence in Pedrinhas.

However, Maranhao Governor Roseana Sarney, daughter of former President Jose Sarney, rejected the possibility of federal intervention in the state her family has been ruling for almost 50 years.

“I’m fulfilling my duties, as always,” she told Al Jazeera by email.

In partnership with the Ministry of Justice, Roseana announced a series of measures to control the prison crisis, including the construction of new prison units, transferring highly dangerous inmates to federal facilities and improving inmates’ access to legal aid.

“Violence is rising not only in Maranhao state. Drug trafficking is an evil that has spread throughout the country, as well as the presence of criminal factions inside the prison system, which is a national crisis,” said Sarney. She said 1,730 new spaces for inmates were created in recent years in the prison system in Maranhao state, and $55m has been invested in the construction of new units and improvement of old facilities.

Human rights experts, however, highlight a culture of imprisonment in Brazil and agree that building new facilities will only temporarily solve overcrowding, but not the problem of violence.

Judicial system at fault

“Any small crime is punished with liberty restriction, alternative sentences are widely ignored in Brazil,” Zema Ribeiro, president of SMDH, told Al Jazeera, adding a large number of prisoners currently in prison didn’t have to be there.

The Brazilian prison population had a 380 percent increase in the last 20 years, while the country’s population rose only by 30 percent.

We are flooding prisons with small drug traffickers ... Those in jail are the same ones that don't have a voice or rights in the society: Young, poor and black people who live in slums.

by - Julita Lemgruber, Candido Mendes University

According to Lucia Nader, the executive director at Conectas, an estimated 40 percent of the Brazilian prison population is under pre-trial detention, meaning they are imprisoned while waiting for a verdict, which can take months because of a lack of public defenders and judges.

Julita Lemgruber, coordinator at the Center of Security and Citizenship Studies at Candido Mendes University, said half of Rio state’s inmate population under provisional detention are in jail illegally.

“Brazil has 200,000 pre-trial detainees and a high percentage of these people are imprisoned illegally,” she told Al Jazeera.

Nader said “mass incarceration policy” is a failure and is worsening violence inside and outside prison walls.

“We have a 60 percent recidivism of prisoners. During provisional detention, inmates live inside overcrowded cells, are in contact with highly dangerous prisoners, are likely to go through systematic torture – as the UN has stated – and to be approached by criminal factions controlling facilities. Though inmates are expected to have access to education and work while in jail, those are rare cases. None of the conditions to re-socialise inmates are available in the Brazilian prison system,” said Nader.

In order to reduce Brazil’s prison population, experts have called for a review of the country’s current drug trafficking legislation, which accounts for 25 percent of all inmates.

“We are flooding prisons with small drug traffickers that have dozens of others to replace them and hold no power in the trafficking structure. Those in jail are the same ones that don’t have a voice or rights in the society: Young, poor and black people who live in slums,” said Lemgruber.

Added Nader: “Prisons unacceptably, illegally and inefficiently punish a certain social class in Brazil, criminalising poverty, a situation that explodes and will continue to explode from time to time.”

Ribeiro said there was no real effort by the Maranhao government at serious reform in the state.

“A prisoner called a radio show from inside Pedrinhas saying that there will be new attacks in Sao Luis if police forces aren’t withdrawn from the facility – soon there will be new riots and deaths.” 

Source: Al Jazeera