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August 5, 2016

"Behind the Olympics: Brazil's Dirty Incarceration Secret"

I thought this Ozy article, which has the headline that I am using as a post title, woud make a fiting and timely posting in light of tonight's Opening Ceremonies.  Here are excerpts:

“Brazil’s prisons are illegal, and if I wanted to, I could set thousands of prisoners free,” Luis Carlos Valois declares. It is both a comment on the power of judges in Brazil to interpret the law at will, and an insight into Valois’ rebelliousness.  Seated behind his huge wooden desk, with an enormous flag of Brazil posted nearby, he cuts an imposing figure.  But his shaved head, muscles and tattoos make Valois resemble the Brazilian jujitsu champion he was in 1995 more than an establishment man.

OK, he concedes, he would end up behind bars himself if he really unleashed thousands of prisoners into the streets. But he’s serious about using the system to do just that.  His work agitating for better prison conditions and offering lenient sentences for petty drug offenses has earned him at least one death threat and a flurry of bad press.  Under Brazilian and international law, prisons in Brazil are supposed to provide inmates access to healthcare, individual cells and protection from death threats.  In reality, however, prisons in Manaus are two to three times more crowded than they should be, Valois says, with scores of inmates sharing the same cell.  Access to basic healthcare was described as “inadequate” in a 2014 Human Rights Watch report.  Inmates sleep in hammocks or in corridors, with cockroaches and rats scuttling past.  A study in Rio de Janeiro last year found 54 percent of those in pretrial detention may be innocent.

The conditions recall America’s prison system, overcrowded and rife with drug offenders.  Brazil trails only the U.S., China and Russia in size of prison populations, according to Human Rights Watch.  The homicide rate among the prison population — totaling half a million — reaches 150 for every 100,000, says Ilona Szabó of think tank Igarapé Institute. Additional terrifying stats: More than half of prisoners are 18 to 29 years old, many of whom are incarcerated for carrying small amounts of drugs.  Those young men often remain in prison for five to 15 years. In rural locales, men and women sometimes share cells.  Oh, and race: “It seems like they lock up more poor and Black people every time,” Valois says with a sigh.  “Many are more afraid of someone who has stolen a cellphone than a politician who has stolen millions from the people.”  (This in a nation embroiled in its own debates over the 2,000-plus people, many of them Black, killed by police in 2013, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum.)...

Meanwhile, Brazil has increased its prison population by 74 percent between 2005 and 2012, according to the UNDP; the charitable explanation of the hard-on-crime stance is chalked up to a society fed up with violent crime and the increasing power and presence of drug gangs across Brazil.  A “bullet bench” of mainly ex-military or law enforcement officers is busy whipping up popular hard-line laws lowering the age of criminal responsibility.  Yet Valois drives a car that isn’t bulletproof, letting state-funded security men care for his two children instead.  He is best seen as local cartoonist Jack Cartoon depicted him: with a gavel in one hand and a bunch of flowers in the other — a pacifist at heart.

August 5, 2016 at 12:44 PM | Permalink

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