Brazilian prisons are fairly brutal places with abysmal conditions. Only two days ago, a prison riot in Cascavel claimed three lives in horrible ways. A story on The Economist, which was published a few months ago, ascribes the brutality, and the murders of about 220 inmates in the last year and a half, to the severe overcrowding in the system.
In the past 20 years Brazil’s population has grown by 30%, while that of its prisons and police cells has almost quintupled, to 550,000—the fourth-highest in the world, behind the United States, China and Russia.
Officially, Brazilian penitentiaries have room for around 300,000 people. There is federal money to spend on building extra prisons, which are largely run by the states. But it can flow only once a project is approved by a local town. They are reluctant hosts, fearing that penitentiaries both bring crime when prisoners are released and also divert resources from other public works. “Everyone wants hospitals and schools,” says Antonio Ferreira Pinto, a former security secretary in São Paulo state. “No one wants a prison.” Federal-prison spending fell in 2012.
Brazil needs cells to house genuine criminals: the murder rate stood at 24.3 per 100,000 in 2012, more than six times higher than in Chile. But really it needs fewer inmates. Lucia Nader of Conectas, a human-rights group, attributes an upsurge in prisoners since 2006 to a law that decriminalised possession of drugs for personal use but stiffened penalties for trafficking. The distinction between the two is left to the arresting officer. “A light-skinned yuppie smoking pot on the beach is a user and left in peace,” says Ms Nader. “A dark-skinned slum-dweller lighting a spliff on the street is a peddler and thrown in jail.” Since the law’s introduction, the number of people held for trafficking has swelled from 33,000 in 2005 to 138,000 in 2012.
There are two bottlenecks that prevent the release of inmates that would alleviate the overcrowding: undiscriminating pretrial detention (41% of all inmates) and a paucity of legal advice that would enable inmates to benefit from Brazil’s theoretically world-class laws on parole and alternative sentences like community service.
With too many prisoners flowing in, and not enough flowing out, a cesspool festers in the middle. On paper Brazil’s prisons are a paragon of modernity. In practice, says Marcos Fuchs of Instituto Pro Bono, another human-rights group, they are medieval. In one São Paulo penitentiary he visited, 62 people were crammed in a cell meant for 12, taking turns to sleep on the floor or by leaning against a wall. According to official figures, half a million inmates received care from 367 doctors in 2012. Fifteen gynaecologists served 32,000 female prisoners, many of whom use bread to stanch menstrual bleeding.
Knowing all this, I was invited to join two Espirito Santo prosecutors on a trip to audit Capixaba, a maximum-security prison located in a rural area of the state. Every month, the office of the prosecutor conducts an audit of the prisons.
When we came in, we were met by Bruno, the energetic prison warden. I was very impressed with him; for someone so young, he is not only incredibly practical and capable, but also full of good, sound ideas, and he treats all the inmates, all of whom he knows personally, like full-fledged human beings--with a balance between discipline and compassion.
The prison is located in a modern building. The state purchased the model from the United States and built it in 2011. It is a fairly new institution, with automatic doors that control everything from entrances to the water in the showers. What you can't see are the cells, which we were not allowed to document out of concern for the inmates' privacy. We were, however, allowed to walk. There are four hallways, three of which are regular hallways. One of them is devoted to students and allows them time to study. In each cellblock, there are a few inmates who study theology and their cells are designated "Igreja" (church). They have volunteered to offer spiritual help to the other inmates.
I asked about solitary confinement. Bruno was surprised, then explained that he did not believe in segregation, so he simply never did that. Instead, if someone violated the discipline, they were sent to a special aisle of cells where disruptive folks lived, to enable the other people to live in peace.
At the entrance to the prison, we were greeted by a beautiful organic vegetable garden. The garden is run by an employee of the state who is also a biologist. He has transformed the outside of the entire prison into a bountiful farm, and the produce goes straight to the kitchen. At lunchtime, we saw the meal, which was very decent - chicken, rice, beans, vegetables - and contained produce. The surplus is donated to needy families.
The garden manager chooses frail, ill inmates to work in the garden, because he reasons that they can benefit more from the sunshine.
Outside the prison, near the garden, we met the prison's two full-time psychologists, who conduct extensive intake interviews with the inmates and help them put together education and work plans.
Lawyers meet the inmates through plexiglass in a special meeting room that looks like the one in any American prison. But they're not the only visitors, of course; inmates are allowed a one-hour conjugal visit with their wife, or a legally-recognized partner, once every 15 days. The prison has basic but decent and clean rooms for this purpose, with a bed, a mattress, and a washbasin. The women undergo a search coming in but are treated with respect by guards and inmates. While Bruno created some rules for walking around the prison, the inmates came up with an informal code of their own: out of respect for their fellow inmates and their wives and a willingness to avoid violence and anger, they look away when women pass by.
There is also a big yard and a big family room, and children can come visit and play in the yard. Because of the good influence of visits on inmates' morale and behavior, last year, Bruno transferred several inmates from a distant part of the country to an institution close to their families, and accepted local inmates in return.
|Vinicius and his art.|
In Bruno's prison there are several ways to spend your time. There is an art studio, where inmates paint and make marvelous objects of art. Their teacher, who was enthusiastically explaining perspective to them, is Vinicius, a gifted oil and charcoal painter himself, who is serving his second sentence for drug trafficking. A gentle and intelligent soul, Vinicius explained about his program and we became friends. At the end of my visit, he very generously gifted me this beautiful painting.
A local church has started a music program with the prison, and several inmates have joined a choir. There are also several talented musicians who started a samba band, and they were rehearsing when we came to visit. They told us that some of them had been musicians outside and some learned music behind bars. I thought they sounded fantastic.
On the way out, we told Daniella, the prosecutor, that we hope she doesn't now get motivated to send inmates there. We know that there are only eight prisons like Capixaba in the state, and the rest of them are awful, full of violence, boredom, and terrible conditions. Since apparently there is federal money to reform prisons, I very much hope Brazil will model more of its prisons like Capixaba, with one variation: an improvement in the impossibly-small cell size. The key to stay sane and healthy in Capixaba is to spend as much time out of the cell as possible, working, studying, and learning new skills; being in the cells is extremely depressing and requires being with at least other three human beings in very close quarters.
|With warden Bruno and the psychologists.|
Many thanks to Daniella and her fellow prosecutor, as well as to Ricardo Gueiros and Marco Olsen, for bringing me to Capixaba and treating me with generous hospitality; to Bruno, for allowing us an extensive tour of his well-run prison; and to Vinicius, for sharing his art and talent with us.