Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: When the Tables Are Turned on Prison Guards

Mario Osava

SAO PAULO, Aug 14 2006 (IPS) - During the 25 hours that he spent as a hostage during a prison riot in Brazil, “I thought I was dead for sure” three times, in one of which “I fainted or something, and wasn’t aware of anything for a while,” says a prison guard.

“I wanted to die by a bullet from the military police” who were surrounding the prison, which had fallen under the control of the rioting inmates, because “I saw more than 30 men stabbed to death; it took them a long time to die,” he tells IPS.

Besides, “It was a question of pride to die at the hands of colleagues rather than be killed by delinquents,” says the guard, who works in the prison system in the southern Brazilian state of Sao Paulo, the most developed and industrialised part of the country.

He explains that he had already been taken hostage three times in the past, but in a less traumatic fashion. On these earlier occasions, he had been seized by one or just a few prisoners, rather than as part of a general uprising.

Although he says he survived the experience without psychological problems, his wife disagrees. “He started sleeping with his gun, he was startled by barking dogs, he would get all nervous while he was talking, and he had stomach aches,” she points out.

But the problems faced by A., who will remain anonymous for security reasons, are not over. After being targeted by death threats from a criminal gang, he and his family were forced to flee their home in a town in the state of Sao Paulo.

“You have half an hour to leave,” said two men on a motorcycle, their faces hidden by their helmets. “No police can stay in this neighbourhood,” they warned. The ultimatum was the culmination of months of threats that came over the telephone and through other channels, says A.

Police brutality has been the focus of a number of reports by human rights groups in Brazil. But the violence can work the other way around too. In outbreaks of violence in May and again in July, organised crime launched hundreds of attacks on the police, banks, supermarkets and public buildings, besides setting fire to nearly 100 buses in the state of Sao Paulo and triggering uprisings in half of the state’s 144 prisons.

Sixteen prison guards were killed in the waves of violence in May and July, as well as more than 20 military and civilian police. A number of families of law enforcement personnel continue to be terrorised by death threats, whose message was driven home even further by new attacks last week.

A hotel and the homes of fellow prison guards provided temporary refuge for A. and his family until they were able to rent a small apartment in a middle-class neighbourhood in the city of Sao Paulo. The rent absorbs nearly his whole salary, which was reduced as a result of the medical leave he obtained to justify his absence from his job.

The family’s whole life has been turned upside down. A. and his wife sleep on the floor, since they have only been able to afford one mattress, which is used by all four of their children in one of the apartment’s two bedrooms. “We lost almost everything. The only thing we were able to bring with us was this little TV set” and a few pieces of furniture and clothing, says A.’s wife.

Meanwhile, the family is living under cover. The children have learned not to tell anyone that their father is a prison guard, and not to bring classmates home to play. They have had to modify their appearance, too, by cutting their hair, for example.

“They can’t have close friends,” explains their mother. That is also because the family has moved eight times in the last few years, which in addition has caused the children to fall behind in school.

The rise in violence and the growing number and power of organised criminal gangs in the 1990s increased the risk of reprisals against prison guards.

A.’s family moves whenever they identify relatives of prisoners in the neighbourhood, or when the neighbours discover what A. does for a living. “I can’t be transferred to prisons in small towns, where everyone knows each other,” he says.

The dream of his children is “to have a normal life, and a place they can call home,” without having to worry about “another move tomorrow.”

The risk of falling hostage in prison riots has also increased. So far this year, 950 guards have been taken hostage, 370 of whom were wounded, Joao Rinaldo Machado, the president of the union of prison system employees of the state of Sao Paulo, explains to IPS.

The union represents 22,000 prison guards, 3,000 bodyguards and around 5,000 social workers, psychologists and administrative and medical staff.

The employees of the state prison system, who fall under the Secretariat of Penitentiary Administration, do not include the civilian police officers who guard some 17,700 detainees in police lockups.

Despite the dangers of their job, prison guards do not earn high wages, which start out at 1,650 reals (750 dollars) a month. But their main demands and grievances are now focused on “improved and safer working conditions, more than on wage hikes,” says Machado. “What use is a good salary, if you are tortured?”

Since the guards work 12-hour shifts, followed by 36 hours off-duty, many supplement their incomes by working as security guards in private companies or supermarkets. Others use their free time to study, with the aim of eventually leaving behind their risky jobs.

Guards are hired through public competitions, and enjoy strong job stability. Applicants must have completed secondary school, although more and more university graduates are being hired, as they find it increasingly difficult to find other stable employment. Around 10 percent of all guards are women, who are indispensable for staffing women’s prisons.

Since 1994, the prison population in the state of Sao Paulo has risen nearly four-fold, to 125,000 today. But while the number of prisons grew from 44 to 144, the number of guards increased by only 48 percent, noted Machado. Twelve years ago, the ratio was one guard for every 2.2 prisoners; today it is one for every 5.7.

The prisons are severely overcrowded and understaffed. In addition, the average age of inmates has dropped. Most are now between the ages of 18 and 22, and “the younger prisoners are more difficult to control,” said the trade unionist.

In Sao Paulo, prisons serve as the headquarters of organised crime. This year’s simultaneous state-wide prison riots, staged in reprisal for measures taken by penitentiary authorities, such as transfers of gang leaders to high security facilities, were blamed on the First Command of the Capital (PCC), the biggest and best organised crime gang. The PCC is also blamed for the waves of murders of police and off-duty guards and the torching of buses in May and July.

M. is another victim of the prison riots. He was severely beaten with mallets and other objects while being held hostage for five hours. His nose was broken, as well as other bones in his face, and he suffered dislocated vertebrae and a dislocated ankle. He was also threatened with rape.

During his hours as a hostage, “I relived my whole life, convinced that I would not get out of there alive,” he tells IPS. The violence left its mark: panic attacks that make it difficult for him to leave his house.

He was transferred to a prison in another city, because of the psychological effects of returning to the place where everything reminded him of his hours of terror.

But despite 40 days of medical leave and six months of psychological assistance, he still suffers from insomnia and nightmares, and goes entire nights without sleeping.

M. was finally recovering fairly well, but the riots and attacks of the past few months triggered a relapse, not least because he almost fell hostage once again in his new workplace. The only reason he was not among the hostages was that he was not on duty when the uprising broke out.

He credits the progress he has made to his family and a special support group.

The support group, an initiative of the office that coordinates prison administration in the western part of Sao Paulo state, offers a broad range of assistance to guards who have been taken hostage, and to their families as well.

Group and individual therapy and workshops depending on the needs diagnosed in each case, family visits, and activities aimed at social reinsertion and building self-esteem all form part of the treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome, explains Paulo dos Santos, one of the group’s three coordinators.

Guards who have been taken hostage experience feelings of “frustration, abandonment by the state, which they feel could have prevented the violence they suffered, and desires for revenge” against the prisoners, says Santos, a prison system employee who specialises in safety in the workplace.

The initial reaction, he says, is the desire to move to another town, change jobs and change their lives. It takes them time to return to work, between 90 and 180 days, although in severe cases the guards are unable to return to a normal life even after six months or a year of treatment.

“Memory loss, nightmares, insomnia, jumpiness and flashbacks” are all lasting symptoms, says Santos.

The support group, made up of 50 volunteer doctors, psychologists, social workers and other prison system staff, works hard to help the former victims get back on their feet – and back on the job.

“It’s a win-win arrangement,” says Santos, because the prison system needs every one of its well-trained guards and the guards have few other options of stable work with “reasonable pay.”

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