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Brazil´s worst prison

Imagine a penitentiary in which inmates are allowed to walk around freely outside of their cells, where they live among rats and human excrement, and where they continue to participate in - and even lead - criminal organisations that are active outside the prison gates. Welcome to Presídio Central, a correctional facility in Porto Alegre, Brazil - a place of frequent human rights violations that has also become a headquarters for organised crime.

Roberto Silva, a 32-year-old, slightly overweight white man, was greeted inside cell 39F by a fierce-looking prisoner with a bundle of keys and a large knife hanging from his waistband. The man explained how things worked in Presídio Central (Central Prison); the military police guarded the outside walls, but on the inside the prisoners were in charge. Therefore, Silva had to follow their rules. He looked around his new home. Three hundred inmates lived cramped in a long corridor, walking freely in and out of open prison cells. His own cell had eight cement bunk beds, and approximately 20 inmates were assigned to them. Many had to sleep on the floor. The bathroom consisted of a hole in the ground hidden behind two half-walls. “Nothing prepares you for what you see when you enter that place,” Silva later told me.

Roberto Silva had never been arrested before 13 October 2014. This is not his real name. When I interviewed him in his humble, one-storey house in the surroundings of the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, Silva asked me to use an alias because he is awaiting trial and feared that publication of an interview might influence a judge’s decision.

“This is not the life that I planned for myself,” he added, sitting on the couch next to his wife. Silva was raised by his grandparents in a lower middle class household near the Brazilian border with Uruguay. He graduated from high school, completed an IT certification training course and did a stint in the army. At 19 years of age, he moved closer to Rio Grande do Sul state’s capital, Porto Alegre, in search of better job opportunities. After holding several temporary positions, he eventually landed a stable job as a forklift operator for a GM affiliate.

What got him into trouble was smoking pot. Even though marijuana use is illegal in Brazil, Silva had smoked up to four joints a day since he was about 14 years old. “l never had problems buying the drug for personal use”, Silva revealed. “But one day, I purchased a little extra for a friend and when I went to give him his share, a police car pulled up.” When he was arrested, Silva had in his possession seven small packages of pot, which were worth about 300 reais (approximately £60 or $95). At the initial court appearance, a judge ruled that he had been dealing drugs. And even though Silva had no criminal record, the judge decided that he should stay in preventive incarceration until trial - which could take up to a year. “I just thought: my life is over,” he told me.

At Presídio Central, Silva went to live with first-time offenders. They have their own section, or “gallery”, in jail slang. There are 24 galleries spread throughout the 10 buildings that make up Presídio Central. Once you enter the grounds as a prisoner, you are forced to choose which one will be your home. Many galleries are occupied by gang members: the Manos, the Balas and other criminal organisations. The remaining galleries hold homosexuals, rapists and devout Christians - prisoners who are separated because of the risk of harm from other inmates. Inmates with a higher degree (who make up a tiny percentage of the prison’s population) are also kept separate. In total, there are 4,193 inmates in a facility measuring around 29,000 sq m - more than double the capacity. And there is no sign that the overcrowding will diminish; on average, 59 new inmates enter Presídio Central every day, while only 54 leave. According to statistics from 2015, the majority of inmates in Presídio Central are between 18 and 24 years of age, did not complete high school, self-identify as white and, just like Silva, are in prison awaiting trial for drug trafficking.

This unusual system has its roots in a bizarre event that took place more than 20 years ago, in 1994, when 10 inmates carried out a bold prison escape plan.

Over time, Silva got used to the system. Each of the galleries had its own 30-member prisoner-run administration. “It works like a business,” Silva explained. “There is a leader and he has several secretaries. Each one carries out a function, such as gatekeeper, cell manager and food servers. They are extremely organised and they all wear knives on their waists so that you can identify them easily.” The leader of each gallery makes the most important decisions, such as when the cell gates are to remain open or closed (although some galleries are in poor shape and there are no cell gates), when to turn off the lights and how to settle disputes among prisoners. Also, they usually have ties to criminal organisations on the outside.

This “executive board” of prisoners is not only acknowledged by Presídio Central’s official administration, but has been completely incorporated into the jail’s day-to-day system. This unusual system has its roots in a bizarre event that took place more than 20 years ago, in 1994, when 10 inmates carried out a bold prison escape plan. They took 24 people hostage in the prison’s hospital ward. After demanding three getaway cars from negotiators - among them state legislator Marcos Rolim - they drove off into the city. The police pursued them in a car chase until two cars were eventually stopped - and shot - by the cops. Three prisoners and one police officer were killed. A third car was driven by prisoners into the glass door of Plaza São Rafael, the most expensive hotel in Porto Alegre. Inside the lobby, the escaped prisoners exchanged gunfire with cops and stormed into a psychiatric conference on depression. Panicking, the doctors at the conference hid under tables. Having taken new hostages, two inmates holed up inside the hotel for 13 hours before giving themselves up to the police. The whole ordeal lasted for 48 hours and had a huge repercussion in the city. “It was all that the media talked about for weeks,” said Rolim. Porto Alegre citizens were terrified at the idea that dangerous prisoners could pull such a stunt.

Seven months later, in the middle of Brazil’s week-long Carnaval celebration, another prison break at Presídio Central again raised concerns about the fragility of the facility. Forty-four prisoners escaped after making a hole through a cell wall. They climbed out onto the roof and into freedom. The police were only able to catch the fugitives by shooting them, many in their legs. The state governor at the time, Antônio Brito, who was in his first weeks in office, declared a dramatic measure to end the problems of Porto Alegre’s largest jail once and for all. The plan called for the construction of new prisons in nearby cities and ultimately for the implosion of Presídio Central. In the meantime, the military police - a police force that operates according to military principles and is responsible for maintaining public order - would take the place of prison state guards in managing the facility. The military police did take charge, but it made a deal with prisoners; they would be granted the power to take over the jail - on the inside - as long as they promised not to attempt any prison breaks or riots.

To date, the plan has worked; no prison-related turmoil has hit the streets since then. However, the state government has delayed plans to build new prisons and Presídio Central remains in the care of the inmates.

Open market

As I waited to interview Sidinei Brzuska, a judge from Porto Alegre’s Criminal Court who acts as a liaison between the military police and the prisoners, about 10 gallery leaders were inside his office. They and the judge hold regular meetings, in which the leaders request judicial and medical assistance for prisoners, give their opinions on prison transfers and arrange for certain goods to enter the facility, such as TV sets, stoves and fans. On this day, they had a formal complaint; they were not happy with the way that new correctional officers were treating them.

“The guards were new and they were being a little too rough with the inmates, and that is unacceptable to them,” Brzuska told me as I entered the room for our interview. “There is a very fragile agreement at play inside this facility, that actually keeps everyone safe.” His job, he admitted, is to keep prisoners happy so that the pot does not boil over.

Over time, the executive boards have gained so much bargaining power that they are essentially free to engage in several illegal activities inside Presídio Central without being disturbed by the guards. Among the most shocking of these activities is the open drug market inside the facility. “I used to buy pot all the time,“ Silva revealed. “They sold cocaine, pot and crack on a platter, even on visitation days, and often guards watched the transactions without interfering.” In December 2014, this practice became public when a video was published showing dozens of inmates waiting in line to snort cocaine inside one of the galleries. The video was sent by a source inside the prison to reporter Renato Dorneles, who works for the local newspaper, Diário Gaúcho.

According to Judge Brzuska, drugs (as well as cellphones and handguns) are smuggled into Presídio Central by family members on visitation days. An average of 230,000 people visit the inmates each year. Many have been caught smuggling items inside pieces of bread, fruit, children’s toys and even body cavities. Brzuska and the military police attempted to regain some control of the situation by introducing a body scanner for visitors late last year. Since it has been in place, authorities have apprehended a large amount of drugs on their way in. But the illegal items continue to enter the facility.

“Family members and crime associates now throw packages over the jail’s outer walls,” said Brzuska. Guards have also found rats running around wearing necklaces made of crack and mice with packages of cocaine sewn into their bellies. At the same time, it is suspected that some guards might have their own agreements with prisoners. “They will always find a way,” Brzuska said. “Crime leaders are relentless.”

In addition to selling drugs, the executive boards make money by maintaining a canteen inside each gallery, where they sell all types of products to inmates, from detergent to crackers. In one of the boldest statements of their power, the leaders established that they are the only ones allowed to purchase items from the prison’s commissary. They then resell these items at the gallery’s canteen for four times the purchase price. “The truth is that for the prisoners who are in charge of Presídio Central, it is great to be there,” said Dorneles, the reporter, who has been covering the topic for 20 years. “They make more money inside than they would on the outside. Also, they have all sorts of perks, like their own beds, plasma TVs, their own freezers and as many drugs as they want.”

Presídio Central is “a sham of a jail” for certain prisoners.

These leaders are an arm of organised crime inside the prison; they make money for these organisations and gather new recruits. Some inmates carry out a more active role, going as far as orchestrating crimes that are committed outside of the prison by using cellphones that have been smuggled in to them. Fernando Marques, a 36-year-old who was serving 104 years for armed robbery, continued with business as usual inside the prison in the first half of 2014. In six months, he made 30,000 reais (approximately £6,200 or $9,700) without ever leaving cell 211, in Building D. Marques would use his cellphone to place two advertisements in the local newspaper: one, a job posting for a secretary; the other, placing an apartment for rent. He would then hire a secretary (who never saw a paycheck) and ask her to pick up the apartment keys at a real estate company and show the place to prospective renters who had answered the advertisement. Once renters made the deal and had paid a month worth of fees, they found out that the apartment did not, in fact, belong to the man who they had been in contact with over the phone.

“He fooled many people until we caught him”, said Police Commissioner Carmem Regio from behind her desk at the police station. “And we only found out that he was inside Presídio Central because we traced his phone number and he was always in the exact same location - right where the jail is located.” Once the crime was discovered, a judge issued an arrest warrant for Marques, even though he was already in jail. The criminal was eventually transferred to the state’s maximum security prison (PASC), but his lawyer has formally requested his return to Presídio Central on three occasions. So far, judges have denied the request.

For Dorneles, this is a classic example of how Presídio Central is “a sham of a jail” for certain prisoners. “There is no isolation, really, because they are still in touch with the outside world due to cellphones. There is no crime prevention, because they continue to sell drugs and commit crimes. And there is no rehabilitation during their time inside; in fact, they sometimes come out worse than they went in.”

For the common prisoner, however, Dorneles believes that Presídio Central is more like hell. The only thing that the state provides for them, once they are inside, is some food, but it is not enough for everyone and it “tastes like crap”. Family members have to bring and pay for extra food and basic supplies, such as laundry detergent (there are no uniforms, washers or driers in Presídio Central), hygiene products, plates and silverware, and mattresses for them to sleep on the floor. The bill can add up to 300 reais per week, (approximately £60 or $95), and all the money goes to criminal organisations. In case families do not have the means to pay such an amount, which often happens, the prisoners are “adopted” by the gallery’s leaders. They end up accumulating a debt that can only be paid by becoming a new organised crime recruit once they are released from jail.

The common prisoner also has to endure overcrowded cells and buildings that are falling apart and infested with rats. Over time, and with prisoners in control, the state government began investing less and less in Presídio Central, to the point where, today, prisoners have to take care of the interior, independently, as if it was their house - from cleaning the floors to basic maintenance, such as buying and exchanging light bulbs. But there is only so much that they can do.

“Once, on a visitation day, I was on the patio and fecal waste started flowing through a crack on the building’s wall,” remembered Silva. “My wife and mother were visiting and I felt very embarrassed.” According to Dorneles, part of the reason why the state doesn’t invest in Presídio Central is because there is an understanding among many Brazilians that the government shouldn’t be spending money on criminals. “What people don’t understand,” Dorneles points out, “is that by not investing in Presídio Central, the government is helping to fuel organised crime and criminal activity, and that is much worse.”

The time has come

Airton Michels, not a particularly athletic person, swung a sledgehammer with his right hand and easily made a sizeable hole in the prison’s brick wall. The crowd cheered him on. “We cannot allow a place like this to exist anymore,” he announced on 14 October 2014. Michels, then the state’s secretary of public safety, had proudly gathered the press at Presídio Central to begin the tearing down of the facility, following through with a promise that state governments had been making for 20 years. The goal was to destroy Building C in 30 days, then Building D soon after and to continue the demolition until the facility was completely torn down. At the time the cost of the whole operation was estimated to be 1.1 million reais (£230,000 or $350,000).

The reality is that Presídio Central had become a huge headache to the state of Rio Grande do Sul and to the federal government. In 2009, Brazil’s legislative branch conducted a long investigation (named CPI, or parliamentary committee inquiry) into the prison system in the country. The inquiry took place after it became public that Brazil had the fourth largest prison population in the world, with an estimated 422,590 people behind bars, exceeding the official capacity by 34% (it has since leapt to 607,731 prisoners, 38% over capacity). After eight months of investigation, and having visited most of the prisons in the country, the committee found that Presídio Central was the worst of them all - a “dungeon”, according to the report. “Inmates live in the middle of dirt and mould. The smell is unbearable… a daunting vision, grotesque, surreal, absurd and inhuman. Such neglect!” states the final report. In the report’s conclusion, the committee asked for charges to be brought against seven people, among them Eden Moraes, the prison director at the time. Eventually, all charges were dropped, but there were huge repercussions in the national media. (Recently, federal legislators have been planning to conduct another CPI of the prison system in Brazil. They plan on revisiting the 10 worst prisons in the country, starting later this year.)

Another formal complaint was made public in 2012, when an inspection was conducted on the premises of Presídio Central and found that there was considerable damage to the facility’s infrastructure. The inspection was ordered by the local branches of the Order of Attorneys of Brazil (OAB-RS) and the Regional Council of Engineering and Agronomy (Crea-RS) out of concern for the conditions of the facility. The final report pointed to the lack of a sewage system, moisture in the walls that led to corrosion and cracks, exposed wiring inside the buildings and the proliferation of all sorts of bugs and rodents. The facility was at critical risk of falling apart, the specialists warned, and there was no chance that these buildings could be rehabilitated for the intended use as a prison. There was no way out. Presídio Central had to be demolished.

In January 2013, the Order of Attorneys of Brazil (OAB-RS) joined forces with other local entities, such as the Judges Association of state Rio Grande do Sul (Ajuris), and made a formal complaint to the Inter-american Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of American States. The idea was for the international organisation to pressurise Brazil’s Federal Government into resolving the issue. In 2014, OAB filed another complaint with the same purpose - this time at the United Nations Human Rights Council (the complaint also concerned the prison of Pedrinhas, in the state of Maranhão). “How can Brazil bid for a permanent membership on the UN Security Council while it does not follow the United Nation’s guidelines regarding human right’s violations?”, said OAB’s general secretary in the state, Ricardo Breier, during an interview. The complaints had some repercussion: in March 2013, the Organization of American States (OAS) sent a letter to Brazil’s federal government asking for urgent measures to improve the situation. President Dilma Rousseff’s aides responded by saying that the government was “making improvements”. But not much has changed to date.

The facility lacked a sewage system, moisture in the walls led to corrosion and cracks, exposed wiring inside the buildings and the proliferation of all sorts of bugs and rodents.

Having fulfilled his symbolic duty to start the demolition of the jail, Michels handed the sledgehammer to the construction crew in charge and proceeded to give interviews to the press. He explained to reporters that by the end of 2014, there would be only 500 inmates left in the facility, out of the nearly 4,000 that lived there. “We are slowly emptying Presídio Central, sending prisoners to new facilities that are being built as we speak in nearby cities. In fact, 370 prisoners have already been transferred in order for this demolition to begin,” he announced.

Most of Presídio Central’s inmates were to be transferred to a modern, rehabilitation-focused prison for 2,415 inmates located in Canoas, a city 19 km from Porto Alegre. However, the facility was not ready by the end of 2014 because of several problems; there were issues with the bidding process of the company responsible for building the facility, there was no money to build the access road to the new prison and, once it was finally built, the prison had defective electrical wiring, which needs to be completely redone. The construction of another three prisons that were supposed to replace Presídio Central faced similar issues involving bureaucracy, lack of funding and poor management. To this day, none of the facilities have been opened. As a result, the 370 inmates who had left Presídio Central for the beginning of the demolition had to be transferred back to the prison, except now Building C had been demolished, making the facility even more overcrowded.

As the situation reached unsustainable levels, the prison’s administration and the state and federal governments fell into a political blame game. “The demolition of Building C was rushed. The governor’s term was coming to an end and they just wanted to show that they were following through with their promise to solve the problem. It was a political move”, said Judge Brzuska from inside his office at Presídio Central. In the meantime, the state government continued to argue that there are not enough resources from the federal government to improve old prisons or build new prisons in the area. The federal government, in turn, blamed the state government, claiming that it systematically fails to execute projects that are already funded.

“Since 2012, we have been forced to cancel funding for five new incarceration facilities in the state, because the state government showed no motivation in building them,” said Renato Campos De Vitto, director of the National Department of Prisons (Depen), in a recent meeting in Porto Alegre. For Eugênio Couto Terra, president of the state’s judiciary organisation (Ajuris), both state and federal government are at fault. “The federal government doesn’t always have the money that they claim,” he said. “At the same time, the state is extremely slow in managing these funds, mostly because the governor’s term ends every four years and with a new governor, there are new priorities.”

School of crime

Little by little, day by day, Roberto Silva, the man who had been arrested for drug trafficking, adapted to the prison system and came to be viewed well by the executive board of his gallery. Initially, he was praised because he knew how to cook rice, beans and chicken - useful skills inside a facility where the state-provided food is inedible. Soon, he was appointed as a secretary; he would be in charge of his cell and the 20 or so inmates who were assigned to that space. After a few months, he was also wearing a knife, welcoming new prisoners and explaining to them how things worked inside Presídio Central. As part of this promotion, Silva was granted a few perks; he was allowed to sleep by himself on a bed and he used a cellphone that he purchased to call his wife and mother (he paid 2,500 reais, approximately £500 or $800 inside).

Meanwhile, Silva’s wife, a schoolteacher, had become increasingly concerned about her husband. “I didn’t want to visit him anymore. I didn’t want to see the faces of those other men. I didn’t want to be in this situation. I didn’t want to be so broke - because of all the money that he required inside. I never cried so much in my life”, she told me. Her only hope was to hire Vladimir Amorim, a lawyer who, according to rumours at Presídio Central, could perform miracles for prisoners, and who allowed his clients pay in instalments.

Amorim was well liked among the inmates because he had been one of them. The lawyer came from a lower middle class family, and at age 25, he was arrested in Presídio Central for shooting an acquaintance. “Everybody had a gun back then, and in the heat of an argument I shot the guy - but he lived, thank God,” he told me during an interview at a cafe. While he was inside Presídio Central, sleeping on the floor of Building D, itching from scabies, he watched his cellmates. “They were human beings, many wanted to live a better life, but they had no opportunity. Because they were poor, they had no access to decent legal counseling.”

When Amorim was released on parole, he made himself a promise; he was going to come back one day, but as a lawyer, to help those men. By the age of 28, he had graduated from high school and was accepted at a university. Eight years later, after facing several financial difficulties, he finally graduated from law school.

Since Amorim started working, his main focus has been to help inmates like Silva, humble men who are arrested at Presídio Central for drug trafficking - which amounts to 76% of the prison’s population. “Often they were carrying small amounts of drugs for personal use. But they are still considered drug traffickers,” he stated. According to Amorim, judges are influenced to make such a decision by social class and skin color. “You can have the same amount of pot if you are wealthy and well educated - they consider you a consumer and the penalty is minimal. If you are poor, black and live in the favelas, they declare you to be a drug dealer and you go to prison.”

This tendency has worsened with Brazil’s new drug legislation, which broadens the definition of drug consumer and drug dealer, giving judges more power to decide and potentially hand down harsher sentences. The result is that since 2005, when the legislation was put in place, Brazil’s prison population has increased 66%, according to recent numbers released by the Brazilian Federal Government.

When Amorim took on Silva’s case, other lawyers had appealed for bail, unsuccessfully. Amorim decided to take Silva’s case to the last and highest possible court - the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF). And to everyone’s surprise, Supreme Court judge Luís Roberto Barroso not only decided in his favour, but used the case to take a stand on the issue. Barroso wrote five pages justifying why someone like Silva should not be in prison. One of the paragraphs reads: “The current Brazilian prison system sends young, usually first offenders into incarceration, due to drug traffic of insignificant amounts of marijuana, in order to bring public order. What happens is quite the contrary. The degradation to which these detainees are subjected to in most prison establishments and the absence of internal separation between first and frequent offenders, as well as between temporary imprisonment and convicted felons, has turned prisons into actual ‘schools of crime’. Prisoners who have committed or are accused of having committed minor crimes come into contact with dangerous criminals, are brought into organised crime organisations and often return to committing crimes after they leave these prisons”.

On 8 May 2015, Judge Barroso ordered Silva to be released immediately. Inside Presídio Central, he was not expecting the good news. “I was so happy that I began to shout inside the gallery that I was leaving and was never coming back,” he said. He walked out the front door and hugged his wife for a long time. Now, rereading the Supreme Court decision in front of me, he gets emotional. “The judge was right. I was turning into a criminal. If I had stayed inside for a while longer, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I would probably have come out and killed the guy who asked me to buy drugs for him on the day that I was arrested. And then, there would be no turning back,” he said.

Silva is now awaiting trial. He has since found a job flipping burgers with a friend and is trying to get his life back on track. Even if he is convicted, his lawyer, Amorim, has planned to file several appeals, which could take up to five years. But in the end, he might just have to go back to Presídio Central.

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