Go Back

Brazzil - Crime - June 2004

Brazil Scene: Letters from Prison

"It feels like I’m on the other side of the world, one which I
didn’t need to get to know. I’m really frightened. The people
here fight day and night. It doesn’t take anything to set off
violence or a whole night of blood.
It’s hell. I ask God to
get me out of here. Tomorrow no longer belongs to us."

Tom Phillips


Picture Brazil’s ailing prison system was thrown into chaos this month, as a wave of rebellions swept through Rio’s jails.

The Benfica detention center in Rio’s North Zone grabbed headlines across the globe, as 31 prisoners and one guard were executed during a 62-hour siege. Two prisoners were decapitated, and, according to sources, an impromptu kick-about broke out with their heads.

In the dormitory town of Magé, 60 km (37 miles) from Rio de Janeiro, there were similar scenes on Saturday June 5.

A series of letters written by one prisoner and seen by Brazzil this week, paint a desperate picture of the Magé rebellion, in which two women were killed.

The uprising began on Saturday night, when after a failed breakout, prisoners took a guard hostage. Police who stormed the unit to free her say she was wrapped in a mattress and about to be burnt to death by prisoners.

“It seemed like I was in the middle of a war,” describes the 18-year-old prisoner, in a letter to family and friends, extracts of which are reproduced below.

As police invaded, shots were fired, wounding one woman in the chest and another in the head. Aline Maria Cesário, 30, was killed instantly. Another has since died.

A mist of silence has since descended on the Baixada Fluminense prison. Visits were initially suspended, and prisoners’ relatives struggled to get news of their loved-ones. Human rights activists have been as quick to denounce police mishandling, as the authorities have been to defend themselves.

“The police operation was a catastrophe,” Marcelo Freixo, coordinator of the Prison Community Council, told Brazzil last week.

Prison chief Astério Pereira dos Santos was quick to deny this. “The police action was what you call legally, self defense of a third party… There was no time to wait for Special Forces,” he told journalists two weeks ago.

However, the letters—dated June 9, 2004, four days after the rebellion—back up Freixo’s words. Written by one of Magé’s 402 prisoners, who witnessed the rebellion, they recall scenes of ‘desperation’ and ‘blood’.

The prisoner, here referred to as Michele, describes scenes typical in Rio’s jail: overcrowded and volatile, and places in which violence rules.

“It’s hell,” describes Michele (not her real name), a model from Rio’s North Zone, held awaiting trial for assault. Without the 1200 reais(US$ 400) to pay a lawyer and cover the bail, Michele has spent over a month in the Magé detention center.

“I ask God to get me out of here. Only he knows what is going to happen,” she writes. “Tomorrow no longer belongs to us.”

Extracts from the Letters:

Casa de Custódia de Magé, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 9, 2004

“How are you? Well? I can’t say the same for myself; I’m pretty badly hurt. Did you see what happened on Saturday on the television—the rebellion at the remand centre in Magé. It was the most horrible moment of my life. They set fire to the floor that I was on. Imagine: I was being held with more than 65 women. I began to scream, ‘Help, my God’. I couldn’t think about anything, I just thought that I’d die.

"C3 [cell number 3] started the rebellion. They took the ‘desipes’ (prison officers) and took the keys. They opened all the cells. They couldn’t open CX [changed to protect the author’s identity], where I was and I got more and more desperate a few minutes later. They opened the cell and took over everything. One PM [military policeman] got up close to negotiate. The prisoners said that they wanted to kill the ‘desipes’ who were being held hostage, tied up and in their pants.

"Soon after, the [police] battalion arrived and invaded shooting, with gas bombs. [It was] desperate; people running everywhere. Thirteen people were injured, including me. Two died from rifle shots and we took a beating, those who were involved and those who weren’t.

"I’m really hurt, it seemed like I was in the middle of a war. [There was] lots of shooting. Every day I thank God because I came alive again. They might have killed me. Soon I’ll be with you all. I know that I didn’t rob anything, and I’m going to prove it.

“[It feels like] I’m on the other side of the world, [one which] I didn’t need to get to know. I’m really frightened. The people here fight day and night. It doesn’t take anything to set off violence [or] a whole night of blood. This is the real ‘O’Z’.

"It’s hell. I ask God to get me out of here. Only he knows what is going to happen. Tomorrow no longer belongs to us. I’m still feeling lots of pain in my body. I’ve cried a lot because of the pain, thrown myself on the floor and rolled about. It was as if the devil had invaded my body.

Mi escreva por favor [sic] (Please write to me). Faith in God”.

Tom Phillips is a British journalist living in Rio de Janeiro. He writes for a variety of publications on politics and current affairs, as well as various aspects of the cultura brasileira. Tom can be reached on tominrio@yahoo.co.uk.

Discuss it in our Forum

Send your comments to Brazzil

Anything to say about Brazil or Brazilians? Brazzil
wishes to publish your material. See what to do.