Maranhão in the international media

Conectas debates prison crisis in El País and the New York Times Conectas debates prison crisis in El País and the New York Times

Given the repercussions of the case, Conectas has launched an offensive on national and international public opinion to warn of the situation in Pedrinhas and throughout the entire Brazilian prison system.


In an article published on January 8 by the Brazilian website of the Spanish newspaper El País that was picked up by dozens of publications around the world, the executive director of Conectas, Lucia Nader, said that while responsibility for the crimes in Pedrinhas lies with the public authorities, they were made possible because a large part of society tolerates the inhumane treatment of prisoners in Brazil.


The U.S. newspaper The New York Times also cited Conectas in its edition yesterday. “The tragedy in Pedrinhas was foretold and could be repeated at any time in other complexes facing the same problems,” the newspaper quoted Lucia Nader, executive director of Conectas, as saying.


According to Nader, the Brazilian prison system is “unacceptable, illegal and inefficient”. She said that “we have created a powder keg, by viewing prison as the primary means of curbing violence when, in practice, it only causes violence to rise”.

See the articles in full below:


El País :: We are all accomplices

By Lucia Nader and Marcos Fuchs

The tragedy at the Pedrinhas prison, in the state of Maranhão, where 62 inmates have been brutally killed since the start of 2013, is the result of an operation that is coldly calculated and backed by a public opinion that, perversely, believes in a prison system that is unacceptable, illegal and inefficient.

The blame for these tragedies lies with the public authorities: governors, judges and prosecutors. But we are all accomplices, since we are either unwilling or unable to change a system that maintains intact, with archeological rigor, the same methods and the same conditions that existed in the dungeons of the Dark Ages.


In Pedrinhas, one of the victims was held down and, still alive, watched as his leg was dissected, before he died, while the whole scene was recorded on a mobile phone. Another was stabbed multiple times with the skewer. Three were decapitated. What they all had in common was the fact that they were caged, in the custody of the state government of Maranhão, under the pretext of being rehabilitated. The facility has the capacity for 1,700 prisoners, but it holds 2,500.

This is not the first time that public opinion has been shocked by events such as these. Five years ago, Conectas showed diplomats from around the world, at the United Nations in Geneva, photos of prisons in the state of Espírito Santo, where human bodies were found dismembered in dirty laundry trolleys. In the horrific situation in Espírito Santo, prisoners were held in metal shipping containers under the hot sun. When the doors were opened, several prisoners collapsed, unconscious, outside.

Tragedies like these are repeated seasonally in Brazil. They are like the summer rainstorms that, every year, right on schedule, unleash a force of nature that causes thousands of deaths in a foreseeable tsunami. Gradually, these catastrophes are incorporated into the Brazilian calendar, like Carnival or soccer tournaments.

All this is possible only because there is public support. In a country where the majority of the 548,000 prisoners are black or dark-skinned and from the poor urban outskirts, the middle class and elites are unconcerned that their fellow citizens are caged, literally defecating on top of one other. Many who shrug off these violations have the magical idea that prisoners are given a one-way ticket to a distant universe. They ought to understand that prisons in Brazil are absolutely inefficient. They operate like a revolving door, with recidivism rates higher than 60%, during which time inmates are recruited by organized criminal gangs and suffer all manner of brutality before returning to the streets.

The Brazilian obsession with imprisonment and prisoner mistreatment beats world records. Over the past 20 years, the country has seen a 380% increase in the number of prisoners.

We have built an illegal prison system. In it, we systematically violate laws and constitutional guarantees. It is a vicious cycle, where everyone loses. The investigation process is paltry – less than 8% of murders are investigated. As a result, the main motive for imprisonment – nearly 40% of prisoners are pre-trial detainees – is suspicion, almost always directed at young blacks from the urban outskirts. This, unsurprisingly, is the same profile as those who have no access to justice, since they cannot afford a lawyer and depend on a public defender who, in the state of São Paulo, will also be handling another 8,000 to 10,000 similar cases. This number illustrates that not even Brazil’s richest state is immune to the flaws in the country’s prison system. Eighty people are imprisoned in São Paulo every day, and the state has not even created a State-Level Mechanism to Combat and Prevent Torture, which would demonstrate the commitment assumed by the Brazilian government seven years ago in the UN.

The argument that we cannot build a society based on inhuman values is, on its face, irrefutable. However, if there are still sadists who support these horrors, they need to know that the construction of a prison system like this will, in a short space of time, end up creating a society that is increasingly more brutal, inhuman and irreconcilable.


Read the original article here.


The Economist :: Welcome to the middle ages


Por Jan Piotrowski

FLIP-FLOPPED feet saunter across a wet concrete floor. With each step, the water reddens until the camera comes to rest on the bodies of three prisoners. Severed heads lie on top of two of the corpses. The video was filmed in Pedrinhas, the biggest prison complex in the northern state of Maranhão, and published on January 7th by Folha de São Paulo, a newspaper. The footage has woken up many Brazilians to the hellishness of their prisons.

At least 218 inmates have been murdered since January 2013 in 24 of Brazil’s 27 states. (The other three do not disclose figures.) Dozens more have died in suspicious circumstances. Severe overcrowding is the root of the problem. In the past 20 years Brazil’s population has grown by 30%, while that of its prisons and police cells has almost quintupled, to 550,000—the fourth-highest in the world, behind the United States, China and Russia. 

Officially, Brazilian penitentiaries have room for around 300,000 people. There is federal money to spend on building extra prisons, which are largely run by the states. But it can flow only once a project is approved by a local town. They are reluctant hosts, fearing that penitentiaries both bring crime when prisoners are released and also divert resources from other public works. “Everyone wants hospitals and schools,” says Antonio Ferreira Pinto, a former security secretary in São Paulo state. “No one wants a prison.” Federal-prison spending fell in 2012.

Brazil needs cells to house genuine criminals: the murder rate stood at 24.3 per 100,000 in 2012, more than six times higher than in Chile. But really it needs fewer inmates. Lucia Nader of Conectas, a human-rights group, attributes an upsurge in prisoners since 2006 to a law that decriminalised possession of drugs for personal use but stiffened penalties for trafficking. The distinction between the two is left to the arresting officer. “A light-skinned yuppie smoking pot on the beach is a user and left in peace,” says Ms Nader. “A dark-skinned slum-dweller lighting a spliff on the street is a peddler and thrown in jail.” Since the law’s introduction, the number of people held for trafficking has swelled from 33,000 in 2005 to 138,000 in 2012.

This flood of inmates hits two bottlenecks, says Julita Lemgruber, a former director of Rio de Janeiro’s prisons department and now an academic at Candido Mendes University. At the “entrance” 41% of all prisoners languish in pre-trial detention. Ms Lemgruber and colleagues have found that half of the 5,000 or so pre-trial detainees in Rio whose cases made it to court in 2012 ended up without a prison sentence. At the “exit”, meanwhile, convicts do not benefit from Brazil’s theoretically world-class laws on parole and alternative sentences like community service.

A shortage of legal advice for prisoners helps to explain both bottlenecks. Most detainees cannot afford a lawyer and public defenders are in short supply. The federal government has pledged to send a task-force of lawyers to plough through a backlog of cases in Maranhão. It is not clear how that will help prisons elsewhere. For each public attorney in São Paulo’s main criminal court, 2,500 cases are pending.

With too many prisoners flowing in, and not enough flowing out, a cesspool festers in the middle. On paper Brazil’s prisons are a paragon of modernity. In practice, says Marcos Fuchs of Instituto Pro Bono, another human-rights group, they are medieval. In one São Paulo penitentiary he visited, 62 people were crammed in a cell meant for 12, taking turns to sleep on the floor or by leaning against a wall. According to official figures, half a million inmates received care from 367 doctors in 2012. Fifteen gynaecologists served 32,000 female prisoners, many of whom use bread to stanch menstrual bleeding.

Dante would blanch

Criminal gangs have filled the vacuum left by the state. In exchange for loyalty and a membership fee, gangs offer protection, bring supplies (including sanitary towels), bus families in for visits and even pay for lawyers. They also maintain order—until a rival outfit emerges. A challenge to an established gang seems to have been behind the violence in Pedrinhas.

Brazil’s criminal code includes neither the death penalty nor a life sentence. In theory, every inmate will re-emerge into the outside world. But they do so brutalised, lacking skills and ostracised by a society with a punitive attitude towards criminals. That pushes recidivism rates above 60%, starting the ghastly cycle anew.

Read the original article here.


Prison violence brings scrutiny to state in Brazil


Por Simon Romero

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — A series of violent episodes at an overcrowded prison, and video showing inmates gloating over three decapitation victims during a riot there in December, are focusing scrutiny on the deteriorating security situation in Maranhão State, the bastion of one of Brazil’s most powerful political families.

Nearly 60 inmates were killed in 2013 at the Pedrinhas prison in Maranhão, an impoverished state governed by Roseana Sarney, the daughter of former President José Sarney. A judge investigating conditions at Pedrinhas said in December that the leaders of criminal gangs operating in the prison were raping inmates’ wives during conjugal visits.

Security forces tried to assert control at the end of December, prompting a brutal response by some inmates, who apparently ordered retaliatory attacks on Friday outside the prison walls. Gunfire was sprayed at a police station and at least four buses were burned in the state capital, São Luís. A 6-year-old girl who was aboard one of the buses died from burn injuries.

The graphic video of the decapitation victims, who were killed during a riot at Pedrinhas on Dec. 17, was apparently recorded by an inmate with a cellphone. The union representing prison workers in Maranhão obtained the images and provided them to a leading Brazilian newspaper, Folha de São Paulo, which made the video available on its website.

“You need to adjust the focus,” one prisoner is heard telling another in the video, before the camera shows three beheaded corpses on a blood-splattered floor.

Facing an outburst of criticism from human rights groups over the conditions at the prison and an overall surge in violent crime in Maranhão, Ms. Sarney’s administration issued a statement lashing out at the newspaper for circulating the video, calling the move “sensationalist.”

In an interview published on Sunday by O Estado do Maranhão, a newspaper controlled by the Sarney family, Ms. Sarney attributed the prison crisis to delays in the country’s legal system that lengthen the time inmates spend in prison, and to prison guards’ resistance to plans to change how Maranhão’s prisons are managed.

Officially, Pedrinhas has space for 1,700 inmates, but it currently has more than 2,200. In October, a battle between rival gangs at the prison left 13 inmates dead. Brazil’s Justice Ministry said on Wednesday that Maranhão had transferred 22 Pedrinhas inmates who were deemed especially dangerous to federal prisons, in an attempt to regain control of the facility.

Beyond the violence at Pedrinhas and rights activists’ claims that the authorities have been slow to build new prisons, Maranhão is struggling with a surge in homicides: Murders in São Luís more than quintupled over the last decade. The ratio of police officers to residents in Maranhão is among the lowest of any Brazilian state.

On Wednesday, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for an investigation into the prison violence there.

Brazilian human rights groups say the violence at Pedrinhas could spread to other prisons. Brazil’s prison population is among the world’s largest, with about 550,000 inmates after a surge in incarcerations over the last two decades. The number of inmates has more than quadrupled since the early 1990s, while the population has risen about 30 percent.

“The tragedy in Pedrinhas was foretold and could be repeated at any time in other complexes facing the same problems,” said Lucia Nader, executive director of Conectas, a Brazilian rights group.

Read the original article here.


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