Inmates lining up to snort cocaine, booze-fuelled parties, and brazen escapes: these images from inside Brazil’s prisons are offering outsiders a graphic picture of the anarchic conditions in the world’s most populous penitentiary system. The country had 7.26 lakh prison inmates as of June 2016, against a capacity of just 3.68 lakh. Surviving Brazil’s prisons is not a given. Nine inmates were murdered — some burned to death, others beheaded — in a riot in a prison in the state of Goias on New Year’s Day.
Bird’s eye view
Although the violence and overcrowding in Brazil’s prisons are no secret, Brazilians are getting a bird’s eye view of the conditions as disturbing cell phone videos secretly taken by inmates are finding their way into social media. One video, shot in a prison in southern Brazil, shows a long line of inmates that ends at a table on which 146 lines of cocaine are spread. One by one, the inmates snort the white powder as onlookers cheer.
Other videos show parties fuelled by drugs and booze, and even jailhouse murders. At the Luziania prison in Goias state, two inmates were filmed opening a hole in a fence for 10 prisoners to escape.
Drug gangs in charge
With few government resources and little political will for reform, Brazil’s bursting prisons have largely fallen under the control of drug gangs. Marcos Fuchs, who heads the prisoner rights group Conectas, estimates that 75 per cent of the detention centres are run by organized crime. “There are no body scanners or trained staff, there is corruption, and cell phones, alcohol and drugs are tolerated,” Fuchs said.
In 2017, the army conducted a sweep of 31 prisons by soldiers equipped with gear used by security teams during the Rio Olympics the year before. They seized 10,882 weapons — one for every two inmates. “Half of the prison population is armed,” said defence minister Raul Jungmann. “