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Crowded, diseased and brutal, Brazil’s jails explode in violence

June 24, 1997

SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP) _ Cramped in the fetid half-darkness, 30 prisoners take turns sleeping on the concrete floor of a 10-by-13-foot jail cell. They don’t all fit at once.

Outside, inmate Sandro Rodrigo Nascimento paces the yard in small, nervous steps. It’s the only day of the week he leaves the cell _ the prisoners must exercise in shifts because the yard is so small.

``Just take a look around,″ Nascimento says with a steely gaze. ``You’ll understand why this place is a powder keg ready to explode again at any moment.″

Nascimento, a convicted robber, is one of 150 men packed into five cells _ built to hold one-third that number _ at the 41st precinct station in Vila Rica, a drab, low-income district of Sao Paulo.

In June, the keg exploded. Prisoners seized control of the jail, returning to their cells only after authorities agreed to transfer several prisoners. Days later, the transferred prisoners were replaced by a new group, who had rioted at another jail for the same reason.

Jail rebellions are occurring at an unprecedented rate in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s wealthiest and most populous state. In the first six months of this year, 68 uprisings took place in the state’s 1,000 jails _ more than two a week.

``More rioting will take place until authorities start treating prisoners as human beings,″ said the Rev. Francisco Reardon, a Boston-born priest and coordinator of a Catholic prison outreach program.

For Reardon, rioting is the only way prisoners can call attention to crowding, brutality and non-existent medical care in a world where AIDS and tuberculosis are rampant. ``Rebellions are their last, desperate scream,″ he said.

Luiz Alfredo Ivo Fontes, police chief of the 41st precinct, said the problem was that police are arresting more criminals than ever, but there aren’t enough prisons to hold them.

``We have no choice but to lock them up in precinct stations,″ Fontes said, acknowledging, ``The conditions are inhuman. We can’t feed the prisoners decently, and sanitation conditions and medical care are, at best, precarious.″

Official statistics show that Sao Paulo has 58,778 inmates in prisons built to hold 26,446. Nationwide, there are 144,484 prisoners for prisons designed for 68,597.

Jose Afonso da Silva, head of the Sao Paulo State Security Bureau, said that nearly 30,400 of the state’s prisoners are being held in jails with a capacity for less than 15,000.

More than half of those prisoners have been convicted and should be in a penitentiary, da Silva said. Their incarceration violates Brazilian law, which says jails are only temporary detention centers for prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing.

Brazil’s lethargic court system and a shortage of public defenders also are to blame for crowded jails, said Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, director of the Center for the Study of Violence at the University of Sao Paulo.

Some experts say the number of prisoners could be reduced by at least 25 percent if alternative sentences were meted out for lesser crimes like purse snatching and petty theft, which now are punished with prison terms of up to five years.

``Instead of rotting away in a jail, these offenders could be made to work in community service ... hospitals, orphanages or homes for the elderly,″ said Oscar Vieira, executive secretary of the Sao Paulo-based U.N. Latin American Institute for Crime Prevention and Treatment of Prisoners.

There are some promising signs of change.

Sao Paulo will spend $220 million to build 21 state penitentiaries in addition to the 41 existing, said Joao Benedicto de Azevedo Marques, head of Sao Paulo’s prison administration department. He said the new prisons will hold 13,500 inmates and will be ready by the end of 1998.

President Fernando Henrique Cardoso also announced plans to build 52 prisons across Brazil by early 1999, at an estimated cost of $280 million. Thirteen of these prisons will be in Sao Paulo and will hold 4,720 inmates.

At least until the uprisings, building new prisons had never been a priority in Brazil _ ``caring for prisoners does not yield good political dividends,″ Pinheiro said.

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