BRASÍLIA: Inmates lining up to snort cocaine, booze-fueled parties, and brazen escapes: these unfiltered images from inside Brazil’s prisons are offering outsiders a graphic picture of the anarchic conditions in one of the world’s most populous penitentiary systems.
Surviving Brazil’s prisons is certainly not a given. Nine inmates were murdered—some burned to death, others beheaded—in a riot in a prison in the state of Goias on New Year’s Day.
A year ago, 56 were killed in an uprising in a prison in the city of Manaus in Brazil’s Amazon.
Although the violence and overcrowding in the country’s prisons are no secret, Brazilians are getting a bird’s eye view as disturbing images are finding their way onto social media through cell phone video clips secretly taken by inmates.
One video, shot at a prison in southern Brazil, shows a long line of inmates that ends at a table on which 146 lines of cocaine are spread. One by one, the inmates snort the white powder as onlookers cheer.
Video images taken by inmates show parties fueled by drugs and booze, and even jailhouse murders.
At the Luziania prison in Goias state, two inmates were filmed opening a hole in a fence for 10 prisoners to escape.
Brazil has the world’s third largest prison population, with 726,712 inmates as of June 2016, but the capacity for only 368,000, according to the most recent official statistics.
Half of those held behind bars are awaiting sentencing.
Drug gangs in charge
With few government resources and little political will to push for reform, the country’s bursting, outdated prisons have largely fallen under the control of drug gangs.
Marcos Fuchs, who heads the prisoner rights group Conectas, estimates that 75 percent of Brazil’s detention centers are run by organized crime.
“Since the state does not look after the inmates, doesn’t care for their health and puts more inmates per unit than fit in there, it lost control,” Fuchs told AFP.
“There are no body scanners or trained staff, there is corruption, and cell phones, alcohol and drugs are tolerated. The consequence is that the inmates themselves filmed these images for all of Brazil to see.”
In 2017, the army led a sweep of 31 prisons equipped with gear used by security teams during the Rio Olympics the year before.
They seized 10,882 weapons—or one weapon for nearly every two inmates.
“Half of the prison population is armed,” said Defense Minister Raul Jungmann.
“This is an incomprehensible and absurd situation that maximizes the chance of massacres and violence.”
Also seized: nearly 2,000 cell phones and piles of narcotics.
The 2017 prison riot death toll of more than 100 inmates was largely due to an ongoing war between two powerful rival drug gangs, one based in Sao Paulo and the other based in Rio.
Fearing another bloody year, authorities cracked down hard after the nine inmates were killed in Goias on January 1.
During that episode, 243 inmates escaped. The president of Brazil’s Supreme Court, Carmen Lucia, was forced to cancel her visit to the penitentiary because her safety could not be guaranteed.
Problems with Brazil’s jails go far beyond the prison walls, said sociologist Julio Waiselfiz.
“Nothing indicates that the problems will end,” said Waiselfiz, an expert on violence at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, an inter-governmental institute.
“There will be new riots and killings.”
He emphasized that the security crisis “is not exclusive to the prisons.”
There were nearly 61,620 homicides in Brazil in 2016, according to the Brazilian Forum on Public Security, an increase from 2015.
“The state has no answers, has no policies to contain this violence,” Waiselfiz said.
No will for prison reform
After a string of bloody riots in 2017, President Michel Temer announced that new prisons would be built in which hardened inmates will be separated from petty criminals.
Currently, the two groups are mixed.
The new prisons will be equipped with gear to block cell phone signals, he said.
Experts also propose changes in the sentencing phase.
Judges believe that the solution to crime is to lock people up, Fuchs said.
“They should be more creative—use ankle bracelets, open prisons, and reduce provisional detentions,” he said.
“Let’s be honest: this is not a popular issue. No governor who says he will improve the penal system is going to win votes.”