Inside Brazil’s explosive prison system

Families of inmates fear a massacre will soon take place inside Maranhão state’s penitentiaries

A prisoner from the Pedrinhas prison is carried to receive medical help after he was injured during a fight between rival gangs inside the jail on January 8.
A prisoner from the Pedrinhas prison is carried to receive medical help after he was injured during a fight between rival gangs inside the jail on January 8.Douglas Cunha (REUTERS)

Railson Amorim Silva is locked up in a space about the size of an average bathroom. There is a hole in the middle of this less-than four-square-meter area which the 21-year-old inmate uses as a toilet. Next to it is a plastic container filled with rice, beans and meat that has gone green and which he has hardly touched.

At 1.85 meters tall, Amorim can barely sleep in his cell, which has no mattress.

On December 31, he was arrested on robbery charges and locked up in this old bathroom at the Pedrinhas Complex in São Luis, capital of Maranhão state. But it is an improvement from where he had been before.

“For three days, I was handcuffed to a bench at the entrance of the penitentiary because there was no space in the cells,” Amorim explained.

At Pedrinhas, jail cells for up to six people actually hold between 16 and 18 inmates. The stench of spoiled food, mixed with sweat, hashish and feces, permeate the air underneath the zinc roofs of the penitentiary. A nearby thermometer reads 33ºC.

“The smell is the least of it – the worst thing is when the police use you as a punching bag,” said one inmate who declined to give his name.

In the last year, some 62 inmates have been killed inside Maranhão’s prisons. In one incident last month, three men from the same family were found decapitated. Both the police and the prison gang Bonde dos 40 blame each other for the murders.

In the last year, some 62 inmates have been killed inside Maranhão’s prisons

Families of inmates fear that the continued beatings and torture by police and prison guards will lead to an uprising similar to the one that occurred at the Carandiru prison in São Paulo state in October 1992 when military officers intervened and killed 111 prisoners.

“Each day more people are concerned about the situation regarding their loved ones who are incarcerated,” said Josiane Gamba, of the Maranhão Human Rights Society. “At first, there were fears about the prison gangs, but now they are also scared about the police inside the penitentiaries.”

Naroa Darragona is a yoga teacher whose 21-year-old son is serving a six-year sentence for attempted robbery. She describes the state prisons as modern-day concentration camps. According to her, some days back guards went into a cell and demanded money from the inmates so that they would not confiscate a cellphone from one prisoner. Because the inmate in question refused to give in and smashed the phone in their presence, the guards began beating the 12 inmates that were inside the cell. Another inmate, who was keeping a diary of his experiences inside the prison, was forced to eat several pages after he in turn refused to turn the notebook over to police.

“This situation has gotten out of control. All we are asking is that the inmates be treated in a humane manner,” said Darragona. “I sometimes wonder if my son will ever come out of there alive. He himself has said that he could die at any given moment.”

Last year, her son was shot in the back during an uprising and it took days before he was taken to the doctor. When Darragona asked prison officials who shot her son, she replied: “It was the state that fired the gun.”

Raimunda Siqueira Santana, a mother whose son was killed in prison last year, explained that the threats made against inmates are common. On one hand, they are pressured to join and obey the orders of one of the two gangs that control the prison system: Bonde dos 40 (Tram number 40) or Comando de Maranhão (PCM).

Because of the lack of authority, the state puts an inmate at the disposal of organized crime"

“I have the impression that my son died because he refused to join any gangs and was left without protection,” Siqueira Santana said. “When he needed protection, a police officer shot him. But I can’t accuse anyone because the case was never investigated.”

The son, Giulete Santana, a 19-year-old crack addict who was arrested for stealing two cellphones, died from a bullet to the head. The weapon used was a .40 caliber pistol, the same model assigned to the police force.

“Because of the lack of authority, the state puts an inmate at the disposal of organized crime which can determine whether to buy or sell him,” explained Rafael Custódio, a lawyer and coordinator of NGO Human Rights Connections.

One family was completely destroyed on December 17 when they learned that three of their loved ones – a father, son and son-in-law – had been decapitated after a fight that had broken out inside one of the state’s prisons. The causes of the fight are unclear but some witnesses said that the three men refused to obey the orders of Bonde dos 40 members.

“My father, my brother and my husband had all each been stabbed more than 100 times. We saw them when they were taken to prison and then we went to recover their headless bodies,” said law student Adriane Oliveira Ribeiro. “That is the manner in which the state decided to punish them for their crimes.” Her 46-year-old father and 26-year-old brother had been arrested on drug-trafficking charges while her 21-year-old husband was in jail on a weapons charge.

Sebastião Uchoa, the state’s penitentiary chief and police delegate, said that many of the complaints by inmates and their families about abuses are not true. Nevertheless, he said each complaint is fully investigated. “I am a big defender of human rights and I want transparency. We are in the middle of a crisis, but a good part of those tales about the actions by police are lies. We don’t cover up anything here,” Uchoa said.

Maranhão houses just one percent of Brazil’s estimated 550,000 inmates but last year 27 percent of 218 prison murders occurred in the state.

“We are not a state that has a lot of inmates but we have the most murders because of lack of government supervision and controls in the prisons and a complete disregard for human rights,” said Luis Alberto Pedrosa, chairman of the human rights commission at the Maranhão Bar Association.

Separate reports by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Brazilian Justice Ministry both concluded that state officials have been unable to contain the crisis.

It was only after the death of a six-year-old student on January 3 when several buses were attacked that the federal and state governments swung into action. The attacks were ordered by the heads of several prison gangs in São Luis. Four others were injured in the incident.

Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo and Maranhão Governor Roseana Sarney created a commission to look for solutions to the prison crisis. This week, officials began transferring prisoners to ease overcrowding, and the Justice Ministry ordered the construction of a new facility within 60 days.

But the only solution, according to Raimundo César Martins, a 25-year-veteran prison guard and member of an NGO, is to “knock down the entire structures and start all over from scratch.”

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