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Hell in Brazil

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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 Brazil’s northern state of Maranhao, and published on Jan. 7 by the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo. The footage has woken up many Brazilians to the hellishness of their prisons.

Since January 2013 at least 218 inmates have been murdered in 24 of Brazil’s 27 states — the other three do not disclose figures. Dozens more have died under suspicious circumstances.

Severe overcrowding is the root of the problem. In the past 20 years Brazil’s population has grown by 30 per cent while that of its prisons and police cells has almost quintupled, to 550,000. That number is the fourth-highest in the world, behind only 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 largely are run by the states, but it can flow only after 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 Sao Paulo state. "No one wants a prison."

Federal-prison spending fell in 2012.

Brazil needs cells to house genuine criminals — the nation’s murder rate stood at 24.3 per 100,000 in 2012, more than six times higher than that of 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 decriminalized 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," Nader says. "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 in the city. At the "entrance" 41 per cent of all prisoners languish in pretrial detention. Lemgruber and her colleagues found that half of the 5,000 or so pretrial detainees in Rio whose cases made it to court in 2012 ended up not receiving prison sentences. At the "exit," meanwhile, convicts do not benefit from Brazil’s theoretically world-class laws on parole and alternative sentences such as community service.

A shortage of legal advice for prisoners helps to explain both bottlenecks. Most detainees cannot afford lawyers, and public defenders are in short supply. The federal government has pledged to send a task force of lawyers to plow through a backlog of cases in Maranhao. It is not clear how that will help prisons elsewhere, and they may not be up to the job: For each public attorney in Sao 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 Sao 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 gynecologists served 32,000 female prisoners, many of whom use bread to stanch menstrual bleeding.

Criminal gangs have filled the vacuum left by the state. In exchange for loyalty and a membership fee, gangs offer protection, bus families in for visits, bring supplies — including sanitary napkins — and even pay for lawyers. They also maintain order, at least until a rival group 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. However, they do so brutalized, lacking skills and ostracized by a society with a punitive attitude toward criminals. That pushes recidivism rates above 60 per cent and starts the ghastly cycle anew.

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