Nearly every day, violence breaks out in a Brazilian prison. In January, the focus has been on the northeastern state of Maranhao, where orders issued from behind bars wreaked havoc in the streets of its capital city, illustrating the scope of national prison anarchy.
Even though public opinion is hardened to crime reports from Brazil’s 1,478 prisons, where 218 inmates were killed in 2013, people are shocked by what is happening in the Pedrinhas Penitentiary Complex in the city of Sao Luis, the state capital.
Several riots and mutinies have broken out during January in this prison, with a death toll of three inmates so far, and another fatality on January 27 in a nearby prison. All the episodes of violence have been expressions of rejection of the presence of military police within the prison and the transfer of certain prisoners to maximum security facilities since January 20.
It all began on the night of January 3, when imprisoned gang leaders ordered their followers on the outside to burn buses and attack police stations in the city, causing the death of a girl who sustained burns on 95 percent of her body, and injuring five other people.
On January 7, a gruesome video filmed in Pedrinhas by inmates, showing the corpses of three rival gang members decapitated during another mutiny on December 17, shocked the country when it was disseminated by the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, and galvanised regional and national authorities into action.
Unfortunately, the collapse of this system is no novelty. But the crisis has acquired the dimensions of a tragedy.
The crisis in Pedrinhas reflects the fragility of the Brazilian prison system, Mario Macieira, the president of the Maranhao chapter of the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB), said. In his view the country’s prison crisis, far from improving, is becoming more acute.
“There is a constant repetition of the same picture in the Brazilian prison situation: overpopulation, appalling hygienic conditions and lack of food security. Unfortunately, the collapse of this system is no novelty. But the crisis has acquired the dimensions of a tragedy,” he said.
All the units in Pedrinha, except for the women’s prison, are overcrowded and are the scenes of violence between rival gangs, whose leaders provoke frequent riots. The prison was built for 1,700 prisoners but houses 2,500.
Brazil, the country with the fifth-largest population in the world at nearly 200 million people, is the fourth country for the number of people deprived of liberty, 550,000, behind the United States, China and Russia. In terms of prison overcrowding it is placed 32nd, with an overpopulation of 172 percent, according to UN figures.
According to the OAB, 218 prisoners were killed in the country in 2013, 60 of them in Maranhao. Twenty-eight percent of the deaths occurred in Pedrinhas, Macieira said.
Since January 3, the military police and national security forces have been regaining control of Pedrinhas, which is under de facto domination by bosses of criminal gangs on the inside, who use their mobile phones to direct many criminal activities on the outside as well.
The OAB’s human rights commission has not been able to enter the prison, for security reasons, they were told. The Senate Human Rights Commission was allowed in on January 13, but has not been able to visit several sectors for the same reasons.
In late 2013, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) asked the Brazilian government to take immediate measures to prevent persistent abuses and unsanitary conditions in Pedrinhas and another prison in the south of the country.
The IACHR request was in response to the complaint lodged in October by the OAB and the Maranhao Human Rights Association about human rights violations in Pedrinhas and other prisons in the state.
Maranhao is a small state, and one of the poorest in the country. Its incarceration rate is 100.6 prisoners per 100,000 population, which is lower than the national average of 401.7 prisoners per 100,000 population.
Nationwide there is a shortage of 211,000 prison places, but in Maranhao the deficit is only 2,000 beds, in a scenario in which Pedrinhas has the worst overcrowding problem.
According to the Brazil’s 2013 Annual Report on Public Security, the states which most need to expand their prisons are Sao Paulo (which needs 88,500 additional prison places), Minas Gerais (18,500) and Pernambuco (17,900).
In Macieira’s view, the pacification of prisons in Maranhao requires new prisons to be opened urgently, but the regional authorities have said new units will only become available at the end of 2014.
Brazil's penal system targets the poor and the working classes.
Rodrigo de Azevedo, a sociologist, said that the prisons crisis has worsened in the last 20 years because of increased institutional violence, overpopulation and criminal gangs operating within prison facilities.
“Brazil’s penal system targets the poor and the working classes,” he complained. Moreover, the prison system culture “encourages violent situations like those that have occurred in Maranhao or other states at other times”, he said.
Azevedo coordinates a research group on public policies for security and the administration of criminal justice at the Pontificia Universidade Catolica in Rio Grande do Sul.
According to his analysis, the war on drugs and excessive use of provisional internment on remand, while criminal suspects are awaiting trial, contribute to increasing incarceration rates in Brazil.
Around 40 percent of Brazilian prisoners have not been sentenced, and in some states, like Maranhao, 70 percent of the prison population is interned on remand.
Another problem, Azevedo said, is that a large part of Brazilian society feels that criminals – or suspected criminals if they have not yet been tried – deserve to suffer vindictive torments over and above the punishment imposed by law. Consequently, abuses of prisoners’ human rights arouse few outcries.
Azevedo pointed out that aggression between inmates is frequent in Brazilian prisons and may also involve relatives, who are victims of extortion and physical violence.
Azevedo is convinced that only a thorough reform of the Brazilian prison system will bring about positive changes in prison policy.
“If we want to prevent crime in Brazil and reduce violence, the issue of prisons must be addressed. What is happening in the prisons is reflected in urban violence,” he said.
But in spite of recurring alarms about mutinies and massacres among inmates, experts say that political will and social sensibility are lacking to tackle the drama of prisons in this emerging power.
A version of this article was originally published by Inter Press Service here.