Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Bursting Prisons Are Crime Headquarters

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 17 2006 (IPS) - The prisons of Sao Paulo state have seen their role reversed. Instead of sequestering criminals to protect society, jail facilities now serve as central headquarters and recruitment camps for crime gangs determined to wreak havoc throughout the greater metropolis area and dozens more Brazilian cities.

Criminal attacks masterminded from inside prison walls have terrorised Sao Paulo’s 11 million residents for two months. This week’s offensive paralysed urban transport Thursday, rekindling May’s violence, in which dozens of commuter buses were torched.

A dozen of the 16 local companies kept their buses off the streets, estimating their losses to date at 11.5 million reais (5 million dollars) – more than 100 vehicles have been destroyed. Approximately two million people were stranded without transport Thursday, which had a ripple effect across all city activities.

The more than 100 attacks Wednesday and Thursday also targeted banks, police stations, supermarkets and other stores, which were peppered with gunshots or damaged by bombs. The chaos spread to 45 cities in the metropolitan area and beyon, sparking fear, particularly in locations near the state’s 144 prisons.

Sao Paulo state has been taken “hostage” by a few organised groups that have emerged from the 140,000 inmates, and it seems authorities “have no idea” how to handle the crisis, deputy Ítalo Cardoso, president of the State Legislative Assembly’s Human Rights Commission, told IPS.

The situation was ignited by Brazilian policies that led to “excessive and explosive” increases in prisoner numbers, despite the state’s lack of “capacity to manage overpopulated prisons,” observed Sergio Mazina Martins, vice president of the non-governmental Brazilian Institute of Criminal Science (IBCCrim).

It will not be long before the “civil-war-like” atmosphere will affect the rest of the country, he predicted, noting that the responsible policy is national. The violence has reared its head first in Sao Paulo only because this state is on the frontlines, both in terms of urban concentration and mass and indiscriminate incarceration, Mazina Martins said.

According to data from the Prison Administration Secretariat, the 140,000 prisoners in the state of Sao Paulo exceeds current maximum capacity by 50 percent. These figures have doubled since 1998, and are swelling by 1,000 per month (6,000 entering and 5,000 exiting the system each month).

This is how “prisoners pile up” in squalid living conditions, such as those in the Araraquara prison, 280 kilometres from the city of Sao Paulo. There, 1,400 inmates live in a facility partially destroyed in an uprising last month, noted Mazina Martins.

The problem is exacerbated by a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of prisons, which should be used only in “exceptional cases” of serious crimes and for the “minimum stay possible,” if the state is to have any hope of adequately managing facilities and inmates, he said.

Some 600 prisoners in Araraquara have been waiting more than six months for responses to requests for parole, to which they are entitled, said Cardoso – a concrete example of snail’s pace Executive Branch processes, to which most detainees in fact have no access. Inmate populations would drop significantly if the existing law was applied effectively.

Marcos Camacho, alias Marcola, leader of the First Commando of the Capital (PCC), an organised crime group which is assumed to be behind the Sao Paulo attacks, said the waves of violence would stop only when the Penal Execution Law, which governs prisoner sentencing, rights and obligations, was applied properly.

He issued the warning Jun. 8, when testifying before members of the Chamber of Deputies Parliamentary Investigation Commission on arms trafficking.

Rights violations, such as torture, humiliating searches and abuse – usually denounced by family – increase the attraction of PCC membership, as the organisation presents itself as a protector of prisoners and their relatives. News reports have noted that the group often distributes food to the very poor families of prisoners.

Now a controlling force in the prisons, the PCC and other groups give inmates little choice but to join the “party” which, according to its mission, was formed to fight “prison oppression.” Former allies and released prisoners create outside networks, such as those mobilised in the current attacks, and raise money.

Prisons thus cease to provide security for the general population, and instead destabilise communities by “fostering criminality,” said Mazina Martins.

Criminal organisations are also coming down hard on prison officers; several were attacked in May, victims of targeted “hunt” that has already taken the lives of six Sao Paulo prison system employees.

To get the problem under control, Cardoso has recommended middle-term solutions, such as reserving prison time for cases that present a real and serious threat to society, increasing the use of alternative punishments, improving prison conditions through work and study opportunities, and social programs for prisoners and their families.

In the short term, effective application of the Penal Execution Law could diffuse some tension, by reducing the dehumanising overcrowding of prisons, he concluded.

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