By Stephen Thompson
Why do the São Paulo prison authorities let prison inmates out at Christmas? Isnt São Paulo dangerous enough without releasing another 10,000 convicted criminals onto the streets for two weeks at Christmas, Easter, carnival, etc? In previous years, nearly 10% of these prisoners have gone AWOL, rather than voluntarily returning to prison, and many criminals commited further acts of robbery and assault. There were 45,000 homicides in Brazil last year. Im a liberal, and not in favour of cruel and unusual punishments such as the death penalty, but this is too lenient even for me, in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world.
But anyway, the fact is that 10,000 prisoners were let out to spend two weeks with their families at Christmas this year, and most of them will voluntarily return to prison, having committed no further crimes, which makes me wonder, why do 90% of these prisoners voluntarily return to prison?
After all, life in a Brazilian prison is not a holiday. Brazilian prisons are well known for violence, corruption and riots. They are chronically understaffed, due to strange working practices which mean that prison wardens work only one day in four, with lots of guards on sick leave. So those prison guards who do show up for work are hopelessly outnumbered by the prisoners. The prisoner to prison guard ratio is around 1:150, which is very low by international standards, for a sample compared to an average of 1:19 in Thailand and 1:3 in the US. To make things worse, many prison guards are corrupt, and allow prisoners to smuggle in knives and other weapons.
As the head of a São Paulo police facility stated bluntly to Human Rights Watch: "I have only a few jailers, and most of them are corrupt. Im trying to get rid of the worst two, but its hard to prove corruption. These guys, they make 300-400 reais a month. Prisoners offer them huge amounts of money to bring in electric drills. I have prisoners who inform for me; I found out that cell four is trying to buy a set of tools for $2,000. Im trying to implement a new policy requiring that jailers be searched when they enter. The metal detector doesnt work . . . . So far we havent found guns, but weve found knives. Prisoners even manage to have pizza delivered from the pizzerias of their choice." (from hrw.org)
With around 150 prisoners per warden, its the prisoners who make the rules on the inside. The few terrified guards watch from a distance, as the prisoners carry out their own summary justice, executing rival gang members with their smuggled weapons, racketeering drugs and "renting" cells to wealthier prisoners. "Give a guard 30 reais and he wont care what you do; hell give you the key to someone elses cell." (prisoner interviewed by Human Rights Watch).
Of course its very unusual for a prisoner to be punished for the murder of another prisoner. The Law of Silence ensures that no convict will ever give evidence against another prisoner. Its common for key witnesses in political corruption cases to be murdered while on the inside: the Brazilians call this "burning the archive".
Prisons are massively overcrowded, and cells are only available to wealthier prisoners. Prisoners who cant afford to "rent" a cell from the prison "authorities" have to sleep in the corridor.
Male and female prisoners are separated, otherwise, it is a big mix: convicted and unconvicted, petty crime and murder, they are all thrown together, without thought of the consequences.
Why dont Brazilian prisons have concrete foundations, of the type that are difficult to dig through? There are more convicted felons on the run then there are actually inside, doing time.
Its a shame that São Paulos ex mayor, Paulo Maluf, accused of stealing several hundred million dollars from São Paulos public coffers, was released from prison after only a month. During his incarceration, he drew media attention to prison conditions, complaining about the food and lack of exercise. But Maluf received privileged treatment. Regardless of the scale of their crime, university graduates are entitled to special conditions in prison, such as private cells, with ensuite bathrooms and better food. (Reminder to self: I must get my University degree validated, before I do that bank heist).
Over 5000 prisoners escape from Brazilian prisons each year, many by digging tunnels. A lot of work goes into this on the inside, and sometimes convicts hire digging gangs to tunnel in from outside. You have to admire their industriousness and energy. Why dont they give these guys the job of completing the São Paulo Metro system, which is 30 years behind schedule?
Not everyone gets away though. A couple of years ago, over a hundred prisoners dug through to the sewage system and escaped. A number of them were recaptured, after members of the public noticed their bad smell.
Stephen Thompson runs "O Gaucho", a snack bar serving breakfast, juices, smoothies, sandwiches. Galeria 2001, 2001 Avenida Paulista, São Paulo. For an English menu contact email@example.com
To read previous articles by Stephen click the links below:
Brazil: Trail Biking in Chapada Diamantinha
Brazil: So Near, but So Far Apart
How to Get Into University in Brazil
The Pleasure of Driving a Car in Brazil
Brazil: The Bairro of Flamengo in Río de Janeiro
Brazil: The Information Technology Law
Managing a Brazilian bank account
Brazils Middle Class Ruled By Political Apathy