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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2001

Brazil's prison woes were thrown into sharp relief last weekend, as some 20,000 inmates rioted, brandishing weapons, seizing hostages, and barricading themselves in their cellblocks. Although prison uprisings are so common as to be a staple news item in Brazil, this one – the largest in the country's history – made headlines.

The immediate cause of the uprisings was said to be the transfer from Carandiru of several inmate leaders of a powerful prison gang; the gang apparently orchestrated the revolts in a show of retaliatory force. But it is the dire conditions of Brazil's prisons that create an environment in which such gangs prosper, and in which inmate rebellions are chronic. The prisons are, in the words of a longtime observer, "powder kegs waiting for a spark."

Prisons with Inmates in Charge

I visited Carandiru twice, in late 1997 and early 1998, spending two days roaming its cellblocks. While a full-scale revolt like last weekend's might be unimaginable to those unfamiliar with Brazil's hellish prison conditions, it is unsurprising, to say the least, to one who has been there.

I began my first visit by interviewing the prison director, who had worked at Carandiru for seven years. On a typical day, he explained, he had some seventy to eighty guards available to oversee 6,500 prisoners – in other word, an 80-to-1 inmate-to-guard ratio. At night, the staff would shrink to fifty.

Many members of his staff, he freely admitted, were corrupt. Drugs and other contraband entered the prison easily, and his random "blitz" searches, conducted by shock troops with dogs, always came up with knives, money, drugs, cellphones and the occasional firearm. In a recent search, the director said, he found two kilos of crack and two kilos of heroin in a single cell. The air of cellblock corridors was fragrant with the sweet smell of pot, which inmates smoked openly.

Inmate interviews filled in the rest of the story. With no real guard supervision, prisoners said, Carandiru was controlled by gangs of powerful inmates. Merely to share a cell, one had to pay "rent" to other inmates. Some inmate landlords "owned" ten or more cells, collecting monthly payments from each inhabitant. The strict inmate hierarchy, and the violent, unwritten disciplinary code that reinforced it, ensured that prisoners met these obligations.

With Carandiru at nearly twice its capacity, and in desperate need of basic maintenance, the physical conditions of these crowded inmate hovels were poor, typified by crumbling concrete, peeling paint and broken flooring. Many prisoners slept on the floor, using foam mats given to them by their families.

But much worse were the conditions in the security section, filled with inmates who had no money to pay rent, or who for other reasons needed protection from their fellows. Known as the "yellow ones," because of their lack of exposure to sunlight, the 356 inmates I saw in this section lived in exceptional squalor.

In the security section, eight prisoners fit into a typical single-person cell, and a few cells held ten prisoners each, cramming prisoners in elbow-to-elbow with each other. The air in these gloomy chambers was thick with carbon dioxide and body odor, an ideal environment for the spread of tuberculosis.

Guard and Police Violence Against Prisoners

Prisoners in the security section said that they sometimes went entire days without water. But complaints on this or any other subject, they told me, riled the guards. An inmate said that a few months before, when the group had complained about the lack of water, "Five guards came in and took us downstairs. They stripped off our clothes and beat us with an iron pipe."

When I stopped into the guard station on the ground floor of the cellblock, I saw evidence that the inmate had been telling the truth: Leaning against a desk was a heavy lead pipe a few feet long — with a wrist strap. Later in the day I saw another pipe, also with a wrist strap, in a different guard station.

But beatings, while chronic, are relatively less serious than other forms of official violence in Brazil's prisons. Extrajudicial executions of inmates have also been documented with alarming frequency. In fact, according to an eyewitness account reported in the press, police shot three inmates in the back during last weekend's rioting. Human Rights Watch has called for a thorough investigation of the allegation, and, if the evidence warrants it, the criminal prosecution of the officers responsible.

Yet Brazil's tradition of impunity for official violence against inmates runs deep. After all, Carandiru was the site of the 1992 killing by police of 111 inmates, one of the largest prison massacres in the world. When a fight broke out among prisoners on October 2, 1992, military police stormed cellblock nine, an egregiously overcrowded housing unit. After gaining control of the situation, the police forced prisoners to strip naked and summarily executed them. Many of the inmates were shot while trying to hide under their beds. No police were injured by gunfire, undermining the official story that they had engaged in a "shootout."

Nine years after the fact, not a single officer has been convicted of participation in the killings. Indeed, Col. Ubiratan Guimarães, the police commander in charge of the action, was later elected to the São Paulo State Legislative Assembly.

Root Causes of the Prison Crisis

In economic terms, Brazil is one of the world's most deeply unequal societies, with vast disparities of wealth and poverty. "Prisoners are young, poor, and uneducated," noted Wagner Lino, a state congressional representative who headed a special investigation into conditions in São Paulo's prisons. "Most are illiterate or semi-literate; most come from families that can't afford to pay a lawyer. The prisoner represents one extreme of an exclusionary social system."

Incarceration is the ultimate form of exclusion from society. Brazil, in relying on this approach to handling societal ills, seems to be following the U.S. model, but without a similar commitment of resources. Brazil's inmate population has more than doubled in the past decade, rising from about 100,000 in 1990 to well over 220,000 now. Although new prisons have been built, the pace of prison construction has not kept up with the rise in inmate numbers.

oanne Mariner, a FindLaw columnist, is deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. She has visited scores of penal facilities in Latin America and the United States, including over thirty prisons, jails, and police lock-ups in Brazil.

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