Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-BRAZIL: Simultaneous Riots in 29 Prisons Leave 15 Dead

RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 20 2001 (IPS) - Simultaneous riots that began at midday Sunday in 29 prisons in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo and were controlled 24 hours later left at least 15 inmates dead and a sensation of collapse in the penitentiary system.

The death toll could actually be higher, said the secretary of Public Security, Marco Petrelluzzi, because the inspection in one large maximum-security prison, the House of Detention, which holds around 7,300 inmates, will not be completed until Tuesday.

At least 12 of the deaths occurred in clashes between rival gangs, said Petrelluzzi, who reported that four police were injured, one seriously, and that no convicts escaped.

Several visitors were also injured, including a four-year-old boy who is in serious condition, said authorities.

The coordinated riots, which involved more than 25,000 inmates at a time when more than 10,000 family members were visiting, revealed the extent of the influence and power of the organised criminal group First Commando of the Capital (PCC), which took authorities by surprise.

The cell-phone played a key role in coordinating actions in the 29 institutions – 25 penitentiaries and four police stations, where suspects are only supposed to be held while they are awaiting trial, but where many end up for long stretches due to the overcrowded conditions in Brazil’s prisons.

Although mobile phones are not allowed in prison, relatives of inmates said that for a bribe of 150 dollars, a cell-phone can be delivered to any prisoner.

The nucleus of the riots was the Carandiru Complex, which holds 9,700 inmates in three units: the House of Detention, the State Penitentiary and the Women’s Prison.

Friday’s transfer of 10 PCC leaders from the House of Detention – where dangerous prisoners are held – to institutions elsewhere in the state of Sao Paulo or other states triggered the riots.

“We expected a reaction, but not in 29 prisons. That surprised us,” admitted Nagashi Furukawa, Brazil’s Secretary of Penitentiary Administration.

The only demand set forth by the rioters, the return of the 10 inmates who were transferred, “was not and will not be attended,” said Furukawa, who promised rigorous measures to curb organised crime in the country’s prisons.

The riots occurred during the Sunday visiting hour, which meant families were caught in the middle, “breaking a traditional rule of prisoners,” said the official.

Local news reports said the rioters held their families as well as prison staff hostage. But it later came out that the visitors, at least in the Carandiru Complex, decided to stay with the inmates in order to prevent police brutality.

The Carandiru Complex was the site of a 1992 massacre, when 111 inmates were shot and killed by the military police on the pretext of putting down a riot. Although it has been proven that the prisoners put up no resistance, no one has been brought to justice.

To protect their loved ones, the families spent Sunday night in the Carandiru Complex, and only agreed to leave Monday morning after an agreement was reached to put an end to the riots without police repression.

Nevertheless, a Mothers Commision stayed in the jail to defend the lives of the inmates.

A group of lawmakers also took part in the negotiations between prisoners and authorities, in search of a non-violent solution.

The acting governor of the state of Sao Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, objected to the term “parallel power”, as the press dubbed the PCC, given its capacity for coordinated action in the prisons.

Organised crime exists in the jails, but it does not control them, and the new measures to be adopted will weaken the action of the PCC, said Alckmin.

Nearly 92,000 prisoners, more than half of the country’s entire prison population, are concentrated in the state of Sao Paulo – the most populous state in this country of 168 million. Overcrowding leads to frequent riots, and corruption has a heavy grip, agree authorities and human rights groups.

The closing down of the Carandiru Complex, considered a veritable time-bomb due to the excessive concentration of prisoners, is a long-time aim of Justice Minister José Gregori, dating back to the years he served as National Human Rights Secretary, from 1996 to 1999.

The idea consisted of distributing the Carandiru Complex inmates to a number of smaller institutions elsewhere in the state.

But the construction of new prisons has not kept up with demand, given the steady rise in the number of convicts, and Governor Alckmin ruled out Gregori’s project, which would have converted the Carandiru Complex into a cultural centre.

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