On April 15, about 470 armed inmates seized control of Advogado Antonio Jacinto Filho prison in Aracaju city in Brazil, and held some 130 people hostage, including visitors and guards.
They demanded new leadership at the facility, known as "Compajaf," and were incensed about overly aggressive guards and the treatment meted out to visitors -- especially women, whom they said were subjected to humiliating body searches.
After 26 tense hours, the siege ended peacefully, without authorities agreeing to the prisoners' main demands. But the rioters were successful in one regard: They drew the public's attention once again to the atrocious conditions found in many Brazilian prisons.
The uprising followed a damning report on the central prison in Porto Alegre, considered the worst in Brazil. Local judge Sidinei Brzuska found that sanitary conditions in the facility were no longer functioning. The prison was built in 1959 to handle 1,800 prisoners and now holds 4,650.
I sometimes feel hopeless. I even lack energy, because this is the reality that we've been living with for so many years and without managing to get minimal improvement. I don't know what to do anymore.
In his weekly Critical Eye column for Southern Brazil's Metro Jornal newspaper, Diego Casagrande wrote:
There are those who like bandits. I don't. I want tougher laws. I want them to spend more time in prison. I see a clear distinction between honest and orderly citizens and those who live to destroy, steal and kill. I want perpetual imprisonment in Brazil for serious crimes against life, like those committed with premeditation and with cruelty. But I also want the same society that demands this to have legitimacy to apply such change. And this means basic conditions in prisons. With prisons like Central, which shames us before Brazil and the world, our legitimacy becomes compromised.
In January, the Sergipe television station Atalaia Agora had broadcast a three-part expose of the state's justice system called "Chaos in Prison." It showed photographs of horrific conditions inside another prison in the state of Sergipe, called Carvalho Neto, including broken toilets, crumbling facilities for the "intimate visits" permitted in Brazil, poor-quality food, electrical problems, rough concrete cells drenched in rainwater, terrible hygiene, and medical and food supplies being held in the same refrigerator.
Reporter Aelio Argolo described the prison as "a barrel of gunpowder ready to explode."
Manoel Lucio, director of Sergipe's prison system, disputed the report. "It's as if they were rooting for the worse it gets, the better. It's not this that we want. I'm going to give you an example: We don't have any prison homicides. We don't have violence. We don't have rebellion in the prisons."
The Rio-based Dutch correspondent Marjon van Royen is one of the few journalists to have filmed a Brazilian prison. In a shocking 2010 report for Dutch TV channel NOS, she and her cameraman, Joseph Carter, showed inhumanely crowded cells where youths yet to be sentenced slept in shifts with convicted criminals in a prison in Rio de Janeiro.
The Compajaf riot seemed a relatively straightforward story: another revolt by outraged inmates in a poor state in a developing country. But the rub is that Compajaf is a new prison, opened in 2009 and run by a private company called Reviver. When Sao Paulo judges inspected Sergipe prisons in March, they found that Compajaf was the only one that didn't suffer from overcrowding.
"The prison Jacinto Filho in the Santa Maria area is considered a model for the country. No prisoner has ever managed to escape from here," a reporter on Atalaia Agora said.
That sterling record comes at a high cost: $1,284 per inmate, compared with $802 in state-run prisons with much worse conditions. And, if prisoners are to be believed, guards at Campajaf enforced discipline using violence against both inmates and visitors.
One explanation, as Atalaia Agora's report noted, is that overworked prison guards suffer psychological and emotional problems on the job. Marcelo Soares, a prison guard, said: "We see testimonials, from relatives, from professionals, who say that after they started working in the penal system, their behavior at home, the behavior with the family changed. There is aggression, emotional disorder."
The Prison Ministry of the Archdiocese of Aracaju published an essay on the uprising, which noted that Reviver had performed well in areas such as health and education, but its "excessive rigor of discipline and security" -- including the use of dogs and frequent searches -- had discouraged inmates from participating in worship services. "There are even reports of humiliations and beatings," they wrote. "This time bomb of dissatisfaction exploded in this rebellion."
What then is the solution? In the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, the physician and commentator Drauzio Varella argued that the entire system needs a rethink. Police needed to be better paid and trained to prevent crime, he said, and the justice system needed to be more flexible when it came to imprisoning criminals who weren't dangerous:
The expression 'the bandit's place is in jail' is empty and demagogic. We don't have, nor will we have, enough prisons. The reduction of the prison population is urgently needed. There is no point in discussing whether we are for or against. There is no alternative. Stacking up men in increasingly limited spaces is no mere question of human rights; it is a danger that threatens all of us. One day they will return to the streets.
(Dom Phillips is the Rio de Janeiro correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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