On November 7, 2009 a few friends and I had an opportunity to take a look inside a Brazilian jail outside the city of Rio de Janeiro. We were able to take some amateur footage of our experience on video (see link below). It’s no surprise, of course, that the typical Brazilian jail lacks some of the functionality of those in North America or Europe, but our experience that day was quite shocking.
First, most of the jail is actually run by prisoners. Apparently, if you have a good relationship with the police, you are free to roam outside the cells while still in the confines of the greater jail, while the majority of the prisoners are locked inside the cells.
Admittedly a minority, those prisoners roaming outside the cells were equally dangerous (i.e. – former “paramilitary” or even quasi-serial killers) but who apparently had the discipline and relationship to be permitted to stay outside the confines of the cells.
This relationship from what I am told is primarily a result of corruption with the police, as certain gangs of drug traffickers have special favor with certain aspects of the police force. (There are three primary gangs in Rio.)
All of this reminds me of what is a fundamental problem of the Brazilian justice and law enforcement system – efficient drug trafficking will not exist without police corruption. This is obvious to those of us living in Rio de Janeiro.
What is more shocking is the actual conditions of the jail. The cells in this particular jail are designed for 14 men, and routinely hold 60, some even up to 70 men, in that space. This was an incredible thing to see. The summer heat arrived early in Rio, and we were there on a day of unbearable heat.
Calculating temperatures of 90+ degrees Fahrenheit outside, we experienced the heat inside the jail. We saw men urinating on themselves, as well as the majority sweating profusely, some even to the point of fainting. Those fainted were taken to a “care” area, which was basically a room with a concrete floor where someone splashed water on them.
Fortunately, our sister organization Rio de Paz had some doctors onsite to assist the prisoners suffering from heat exhaustion. Imagining staying in this type of environment day-in and day-out is pretty much like experiencing a type of hell. And I wonder if that is the design of the Brazilian justice system, or if this is just a complete disregard for basic human rights.
At the same time, prevention or rehabilitation obviously eludes anyone who has designed this system. While most law-abiding North Americans would agree that these abuses are excessive, many Brazilians feel that these men are deserving of this.
It is true that any of us who have personally experienced the crimes that some of these men committed could possibly justifiably say – “They deserve this, and more” – the problem is not so much a lack of justice, as it is a lack of a viable solution. (Keep in mind some of these men were imprisoned just for carrying marijuana seeds, while others, even some innocent, were framed by gangs.)
When human rights are violated to the extreme degree, the conscience of a society, and a culture, is corrupted. When men are treated as animals, they will leave the system in the same way they have been treated. And we see this every day on the city streets of Rio de Janeiro.
In the area of human rights, Brazil, often challenged from moving from a developing to a first-world country, has much work to do. With the recent win of the Olympics and the proclamation of a country out of the recession (let us remember – it is primarily because of a large influx of foreign capital), President Lula’s recent comments have been bordering on arrogant.
Some humility is required in acknowledging the serious work to do in confronting issues of human rights, and a reality check is necessary with respect to the Brazilian justice system.
Jay Bauman, an American living in Rio de Janeiro, regular blogs at Bauman’s Blog – http://www.jaybauman.com, is the founder of Restore Brazil – http://www.restorebrazil.com, a faith-based organization, and works with Rio de Paz – http://www.riodepaz.org.br, a Brazilian movement designed to provide international awareness of the problem of violence in Brazil.
Video inside prison: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUIAh3COSSo