Crime, cockroaches, and decapitations: the shocking reality of Brazilian prisons

. Jan 01, 2020
brazil prison system Photo: Joa Souza

On New Year’s Day, 2017, a riot broke out at the Anísio Jobim penitentiary to the north of the Amazonian city of Manaus. Fueled by a confrontation between two major crime factions, the ensuing hostage situation eventually claimed the lives of 56 inmates, among them members of the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), the São Paulo gang which is now South America’s biggest drug cartel. On that day, local public security forces phoned Luiz Carlos Valois, a criminal execution judge in Manaus, to ask him if he could help with the negotiations. “I knew these guys, I talked with them, when you see their heads lying on the floor, detached from their bodies, it’s very heavy.” With a wealth of first-hand experience of Brazil’s prison system, Mr. Valois is one of the best-placed people to comment on what the Supreme Court has declared the “unconstitutional state of affairs” of incarceration in the country. He spoke to The Brazilian Report by telephone this week, discussing prison conditions, the spate of unconvicted inmates in Brazilian jails, the failed war on drugs, and what exactly happened on that fateful New Year’s Day in 2017.

</p> <p><strong>In 2012, former Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo said he would &#8220;rather die than go to jail in Brazil.&#8221; From your in-depth knowledge of the prison system in the country, do you agree with that?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote is-style-default"><p>Definitely. If the Brazilian prison system was made up of people from the middle and upper-middle class, there would be riots every single day. But, as it happens, the middle class isn&#8217;t behind bars, it&#8217;s the poor and destitute who are in jail, people who have been neglected by the state ever since they were born.</p><p>In the majority of Brazilian prisons, inmates have nothing. They don&#8217;t get an education, they don&#8217;t get health care, they don&#8217;t have doctors. If they get sick on a weekend, they have to put up with it until Monday, no matter what it is. And then there are the rats, the cockroaches, which run around the cells, sometimes there are open sewers too.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>Brazilian jails are vastly overcrowded, with over 700,000 inmates and little more than 400,000 spaces. Also, over </strong><a href=""><strong>40 percent of the people in jail haven&#8217;t yet been convicted</strong></a><strong>. How does this happen, and how can it be combatted?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>The Judiciary is unable to handle all of this litigation. You mention that 40 percent have yet to receive trial, coincidentally, this is the same percentage that is in jail for drug possession.* The person who decides whether someone is a drug dealer or a drug user is the police officer, not the judge. If the police officer says the individual is a drug dealer, they will be convicted as such; there are studies showing that the judiciary doesn&#8217;t change the accusation given by the police officer who made the arrest. It&#8217;s really easy to arrest people for drug-related offenses.</p><p>In Brazil, if you are assaulted or kidnapped, there won&#8217;t be any investigation, because the police are much more concerned with arresting people for drugs. The real crimes—murder, rape, kidnapping—they aren&#8217;t being investigated. Brazil arrests many people, and it doesn&#8217;t arrest the right people. They arrest people who deal small quantities of drugs, who will just be replaced by someone else the next day.</p></blockquote> <p><em>* In fact, the percentage of the prison population in jail for drug trafficking is 24.74 percent, while robbery accounts for 27.58 percent, according to data from the National Council of Justice.</em></p> <p><strong>This policy of arresting people with reckless abandon, overcrowding jails, does it favor the growth of organized crime gangs?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>Absolutely.&nbsp;</p></blockquote> <p><strong>How does that process work, in terms of these people being recruited to criminal gangs?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>The prison system has been in place for over 200 years, and it has developed its own community, completely separate from the society outside. <a href="">Inside, there are drugs, there are weapons, there is crime</a>. If you send someone to jail while they await trial, they will suffer crimes. They might be raped, robbed, extorted …&nbsp;</p><p>It&#8217;s a prison community which has developed over time, everything on the inside, where you&#8217;re going to sleep, what you&#8217;re going to eat, it&#8217;s all structured in there and I can&#8217;t tell you how it works. They all function in specific ways.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>As a criminal execution judge, how is your relationship with prison inmates?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>Criminal execution judges don&#8217;t arrest anyone. We monitor the cases of all the convicts, how their sentences are being fulfilled. I go to the prisons every month and keep up with these convictions.</p><p>Now, what do I do to avoid being murdered? I&#8217;m honest. I visit the penitentiaries in person—something which a lot of judges don&#8217;t do. What happens is that when a judge goes to the prisons, the press, politicians and what have you will say things like, &#8216;oh this judge likes criminals, he likes crime.&#8217;</p></blockquote> <p><strong>And in the past, the press and even the Federal Police raised suspicions about you, saying that you were linked to the Família do Norte (FDN) organized crime gang.</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>I know! It&#8217;s just because I visit the jail every month! [Laughs.]</p></blockquote> <p><strong>So how is it being a &#8220;</strong><a href=",MI164929,81042-Um+juiz+garantista"><strong>guarantist</strong></a><strong>&#8221; judge in Brazil, one who sticks up for the rights of convicts?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>Sincerely, I&#8217;m just doing my job. And sincerity is lacking in the Brazilian penal system. If I have to keep someone in jail for another five years, I&#8217;ll set them down and tell them, &#8216;it&#8217;s because of X, Y, and Z.&#8217; They know I&#8217;m being sincere.&nbsp;</p><p>That bothers people, they prefer a judge to be an executioner, they prefer a judge that says criminals should rot in jail, as opposed to a judge that actually tries to enforce the law and the Constitution. And that&#8217;s what I do, I just do my job! [Laughs]</p><p>It would be much easier to say &#8216;all criminals should die&#8217; and sit in my office all day. I wouldn&#8217;t be doing my job, but I&#8217;d be praised for it.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>In 2017, you were called by the Public Security Department to help mediate a hostage situation in a Manaus penitentiary. 56 people died during riots within the jail, what exactly happened that day?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>Well, my theory is that it was a planned riot. Because the heads of the penitentiary department had transferred the leaders [of the FDN] to a federal prison. So they staged a riot in protest of this transfer. And when you have a riot, people get killed. But they started to kill, kill, kill, and it got out of hand. It was the biggest massacre between prison inmates in Brazil&#8217;s history.</p><p>When they start a riot like that, there&#8217;s no-one counting, like &#8216;oh, we&#8217;ve killed 10, we&#8217;ve killed 15, now we&#8217;ve killed 20, we should stop.&#8217; They just kill people, and in this case, it was a massacre.</p><p>The reason for the riot [transferring the FDN leaders] is something I&#8217;ve always been against. Essentially you are moving them to another prison just so they can be leaders there. If they&#8217;re all on top of each other they&#8217;re going to have to organize in some way, even just to work out where to sleep. So, when you transfer leaders, new leaders arise, and you don&#8217;t know what they will be like, whether it will be more violent. And you create power struggles.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>That was three years ago now, is it still hard to revisit that day?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>I mean, I talk with the inmates, I go there every month, so I know who they all are. So then to see the head of one of these prisoners, someone you know, thrown on the floor, removed from its body, it&#8217;s very heavy.</p><p>But I&#8217;m writing about it now, I&#8217;m working on a project to interview all of the families of the 56 prisoners killed in the massacre, it will be a biography of each one of them.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>There&#8217;s a proposed reform to the Code of Criminal Procedure that would introduce a &#8220;guarantee judge&#8221; in Brazil, a magistrate who specifically analyzed the processing of criminal cases to assure the case was properly handled. Is this progress in Brazil?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>There are a lot of legal scholars, who I respect, that are in favor of this. In my opinion, though, the structure of the judiciary today, with the huge gap in salaries, hiring more judges to monitor police inquiries … I don&#8217;t think it&#8217;s viable. I like the idea, but it will probably be vetoed by the President. It&#8217;s a great idea, but I think the entire criminal procedure has to be reformed. There&#8217;s no use hiring more judges if you don&#8217;t improve the police, the prison system. How is Brazil going to hire a judge, paying BRL 30,000 a month, when there are inmates in the country&#8217;s prisons, sleeping on top of each other and surrounded by rats and cockroaches?</p></blockquote> <p>

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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