Brazil prisons smoldering a year after mass riot
SAO PAULO, Brazil (Reuters) --On a warm summer Sunday one year ago,
Brazilians were roused from their afternoon siestas by a nightmare: a gang
armed with cell phones had hustled 29 prisons with 30,000 inmates into a
rebellion, taking thousands of visiting family members hostage.
The world tuned in to televised images of prisoners shot in rooftop
gun fights and
naked inmates crouching in patios as police regained control. President Fernando
Henrique Cardoso called the long night of February 18-19 that left 19 dead "an
The so-called "mega-rebellion" prompted changes in Brazil's prisons
during the last
year, especially in Sao Paulo state, home to nearly half of Brazil's 230,000 inmate
population and the 29 prisons in the uprising. Gang members were grouped in
high-security prisons and officials decreed the closure of Latin America's largest
prison with 7,500 inmates.
But the measures have failed to defuse the time bomb in Brazil's prison
system -- an
overcrowded and squalid network of institutions that perpetuates a circle of violence
and repeat offenses.
Brazil's prison population has doubled in the last five years due to
enforcement, longer sentences and rising crime rates. And prison administration --
which was never very advanced -- is struggling to keep up.
"Administrators do not have control over their prisons," says Walter
retired criminal judge in Sao Paulo and Brazil's first anti-drugs secretary. "As long as
there are no internal rebellions, everything else is allowed."
Gangs, like the First Command of the Capital, or PCC, that organized
have filled the power vacuum, creating elaborate structures that allow them to not
only extort, deal drugs and kill on the inside, but also order kidnappings and murders
on the outside.
"Crime is increasingly dominated by organized groups, those involved
hold-ups, drug trafficking and kidnappings," says Fernando Salla, a University of Sao
Paulo researcher who tracks rebellions. "This organization is transferred inside
The gangs' growth is one of the main reasons for the sharp increase
in violent deaths
inside Brazil's prisons, according to a recent study carried out by Salla and other
researchers. In 2000-2001, a total of 339 inmates died, or 96 percent more than the
173 in 1998-1999.
A modern-day cayenne?
Sao Paulo state's secretary of penitentiary administration, Nagashi
the rebellion would never have happened if the state had not begun dispersing the
gang leaders, but that it was an essential step in regaining control over the prisons.
If the state had let the gangs maintain their power structure, the rebellion
have occurred, says Furukawa. "We would have continued to let the factions
dominate the prisoners and exploit the weakest, and pretended that everything was
Furukawa has sent 1,300 members from the PCC to three maximum-security
prisons deep in the rural interior of Sao Paulo where, he says, "their actions are
Still, in the week leading up to the anniversary, the PCC claimed responsibility
grenade attack on the secretariat's building in downtown Sao Paulo, which injured
five people, and threatened to carry out more violent acts.
The rebellion also gave Furukawa the power to deactivate the sprawling
House in downtown Sao Paulo's Carandiru prison complex, the site of the 1992
massacre that left 111 dead. The last of the 7,500 prisoners will be transferred by
March 31 to 11 new compact prisons built with emergency federal funds and the
46-year-old structure will be demolished in April.
"There are crises that bring positive effects," says Furukawa.
But Sao Paulo state still does not have capacity for its 100,000 prisoners,
those serving sentences and those awaiting trial. Around 30,000 are still locked up in
police stations, where space is so tight that inmates have to sleep in turns.
Even if Brazil manages to house all its prisoners in penitentiaries
by next year, it will
need much more time and investment to meet the constitutional mandate in place
since 1946 -- the re-education and re-integration of prisoners in a society that has no
life sentence and a maximum jail of 30 years.
"Brazil never met its constitutional goal," says Maierovitch. "It has
humane framework on paper, but in practice it cannot carry out these actions."
Maierovitch likens Brazil's prison system to Cayenne, the prison colony in French
Guyana that inspired the book and movie "Papillon", a place that annihilated the
dignity of inmates and drove them to eventual death.
He sees little progress toward a modern penal system, especially as
Brazilian society clamors for tougher sentences and tighter prison security.
But on the fringes of the system, there is a glimmer of hope.
A sliver of heaven
Jefferson Pereira Rodrigues is 22 years old and serving a 27-year sentence
armed robbery and homicide. And yet, he considers himself lucky.
Through good behavior at a penitentiary, the cherubic Rodrigues won
place in one of Sao Paulo state's "resocialization centers," or CRs -- a
medium-security prison model created by Furukawa when he was a criminal judge.
"This is a magnificent move for me, a wonderful air of freedom," says
he sits in his neat bunk, practicing guitar and waiting for the rain to stop to play
sports in the patio.
At the CR in Limeira, a quiet city 100 miles from Sao Paulo, the state
security and discipline and a nongovernmental inmate support organization manages
everything else, from food to work to religious services to recreation. The emphasis
is on restoring the prisoner's dignity and involving the community in his eventual
return to society.
"Hell for them is a penitentiary, while this is heaven," says warden
Antonio Jose de
Almeida, who swears there are no gangs, no weapons, no cell phones and no drugs
among his 87 inmates who will soon number 210.
Almeida's view is backed up by prisoners like Jose Carlos Pereira Barbosa,
47-year-old who has spent most of his adult life in prisons, including Carandiru, and
for the first time does not fear for his life.
"This is something that should be copied throughout Brazil," says Barbosa,
hygienist in training.
At the first CR that Furukawa started, only 11 percent of former inmates
repeat offenses, compared to more than 50 percent for the whole system.
When the 15 CRs planned are up and running this year, they will hold
just 3 percent
of Sao Paulo's prison population.
"Even if it were only 0.3 percent, it would be worth it," says Furukawa.
Copyright 2002 Reuters. All rights reserved