Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

No Vacancy in Brazil's Big House Inmates Took More Than 600 Hostages Last Week. Why? Brazil's Prisons Are Packed

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

No Vacancy in Brazil's Big House Inmates Took More Than 600 Hostages Last Week. Why? Brazil's Prisons Are Packed

Article excerpt

When police stormed a Sao Paulo maximum-security prison last Wednesday, freeing more than 600 hostages, experts feared they merely won a reprieve in an increasingly alarming national prison crisis.

"The Brazilian prison system is a time bomb," says James Cavallaro, Brazil director of Human Rights Watch/Americas. "The absolute lack of even the most minimum conditions are so glaring that it's a miracle that there aren't more rebellions."

As crime rises in Latin America, prisons jammed to two and three times their capacity have become flash points for violence and human rights violations. In recent years, hundreds of prisoners have been killed in riots in Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. In Brazil, escape attempts, rebellions, and hostage taking are common prisoner tactics to protest conditions that a leading newspaper has likened to "Dante's 'Inferno,' life in a state of permanent torture." The nation's prisons are severely overcrowded and provide only substandard food, hygiene, and medical care. According to a 1995 prison census, there were 148,760 inmates crammed into a space meant for 65,000. Tens of thousands of prisoners are held for months and even years in police precincts, which are not equipped for stays longer than a few weeks. In some cases, prisoners share the same bed by sleeping in shifts. Occasionally, inmates have protested their plight by committing suicide or holding a "death lottery," in which prisoners names are drawn and the "winner" is strangled. Killings continue until demands are met. In the latest incident, inmates at Sorocaba Prison, about 50 miles west of Sao Paulo, seized more than 600 hostages after a botched escape attempt. After a three-day standoff, 200 police invaded the prison after they discovered that inmates had dug a tunnel and planned to escape on New Year's Day. The police overpowered the rioters, freeing prison guards and hundreds of prisoners' relatives. No one was killed. As in most riots, the Sorocaba inmates were protesting overcrowding. Sorocaba, which has a capacity for 500 prisoners, houses some 900 inmates. The decaying penal system is a result of Brazil's inefficient justice system. …

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