"Don't do drugs because if you do drugs you'll go to prison, and drugs are really expensive in prison."  

~John Hardwick

Bangu Penitentiary Complex

The Bangu penitentiary complex is a maximum security prison located in Rio de Janeiro. It houses around 80,000 prisoners, among them some of Rio's most dangerous drug-traffickers, composed of 17 penal unities. Nine of them are penitentiaries (only the Talavera Bruce is a women's prison), one is a penal institute, four are safehouses, one is a penal sanatorium and there are two hospitals.

Violence is common in Brazil's jails, which hold more than 190,000 inmates.Rioting has been blamed on poor living conditions, but also on organised crime gangs that enjoy power and influence in the penitentiary system.

Penal Institutions

The two general categories of penal institutions are correctional and detention. The first category includes penitentiaries, houses of custody and treatment, penal and agricultural colonies, and houses of correction. Of Brazil's approximately 5,000 penal institutions, fifty-one are correctional institutions, including twenty-seven penitentiaries, six houses of custody and treatment, twelve agricultural colonies, and six houses of correction. The second category includes military prisons, houses of detention, and juvenile correctional institutions.

The Federal Prison Department (Departamento Penitenciário Nacional - Depen) is responsible for operating the penal system. Depen is subordinate to the National Council of Criminal and Prison Policy (Conselho Nacional de Política Criminal e Penitenciária - CNPCP), which is under the Ministry of Justice. Places of detention include twelve military prisons, 1,580 prisons, 2,803 jails, and five institutions for minors. The separate women's penal institutions are usually operated by nuns. Prisoners in penitentiaries are assigned to work units in maintenance shops and in light industrial plants that produce and maintain the clothing and furnishings used in the institutions. In some minimum security agricultural colonies, inmates have their families live with them during their incarceration.

Prison conditions generally range from poor to harsh, and include overcrowding, a lack of hygiene, poor nutrition, and even instances of torture. In 1995 Brazil's overcrowded prisons held 129,169 inmates in space designed for 59,954. That compares with 23,385 inmates in 1965, nearly a sixfold increase. In 2010, the number exceeded 470,000. Often there are six to eight prisoners in a cell meant for three. The Ministry of Justice reported that thirty-three prison rebellions occurred in 1994, while attempted or successful escapes averaged almost nine per day.

Internal security in Brazil is primarily the responsibility of state governments. The Federal Police play only a minor role and are limited by their small force. The largest and most important State Police force is the Military Police, whose members are uniformed and responsible for maintaining order. They also serve as army reserves. The Civil Police constitute a much smaller force, and are responsible for investigations.

Frederick Douglass — the social reformer, orator, and former slave — once said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In no place is this truer today than in our jails and prisons. We have given birth to a system where jail/prison guards have absolute  power, power to abuse jail/prison residents with almost complete impunity.

In maximum-security prisons I recall seeing incidents of violence exacted against individuals by guards, and I heard about it from victims, witnesses, and through the grapevine, which included officers and civilians.  It was not uncommon for an individual to be handcuffed and kicked down a flight of stairs, have his head rammed into a wall, or to be beaten with batons until bones were broken. The violence wasn’t always physical. I happened to be in the prison yard when fights erupted. Several times the officer in the tower responded by ordering everyone to the ground. When people didn’t hastily hit the deck, the guard would fire shots into the ground near the incident or over the heads of the guys fighting even though there might be dozens of people in the vicinity.

If we know that this abuse occurs, why do we tolerate it? Much of it has to do with the perception of the people in these facilities. They are “criminals,” “cons,” and “prisoners.”  Just like they  did with Blacks during slavery, these individuals have been dehumanized. And they have limited power or recourse to change the behavior of their handlers.

A huge part of the problem is that the system perpetuates itself. There is little scrutiny of what transpires inside prison. When abuse happens, what is an incarcerated person to do? Grievance programs are incapable of addressing these issues; supervisors often don’t care or will not reprimand their officers for fear they will be perceived as coddling to “inmates,” and other staff simply turn a blind eye because it’s clearly not in their interest to report abuse. Although these callous acts of violence are usually carried out by a select few, even those who don’t condone the violence are powerless to stop it. Moreover, despite evidence of unprovoked patterns of abuse and systemic violence perpetrated against people in prison, the unions that represent guards always insist that inmates are violent and that guards employ only the amount of force that is necessary to quell a situation.

Technology can improve the human condition, videos can shock the conscience, but the violence will persist until the culture changes. Simply put, it has become acceptable to beat or brutalize people in jails and prisons in the name of maintaining order. The proof is in the pudding — guards are rarely ever disciplined for acts of violence, it is very rare that they are fired, and they are almost never prosecuted for these actions. And if a case is prosecuted, the outcome confirms the contradictions in our society.

It is a crime to physically assault someone, especially to the point of breaking bones, knocking out teeth, and causing permanent physical and/or psychological damage, unless the perpetrator does so wearing the uniform of an officer. Unless there is a culture change and laws start to apply to guards as much as they do to the people for whom they are there to provide care, custody and control, then nothing will change. There needs to be real accountability and oversight.

When violence is pervasive, it acts like a disease. Like any disease, you can treat the symptoms, but the infection will continue to fester. A nip here, a tuck there will not do it. Removal of a few cancer cells will not eradicate the disease. As with any epidemic, you must treat the underlying cause of the disease.

This raises a fundamental question about the system — can it be reformed? Then again, how much reform is needed for us to have jails/prisons where people are treated humanely as a matter of law? I have never considered myself a prison abolitionist, but there is a compelling argument to abolish prisons as they currently exist. There are prisons in other countries where the incarcerated population retains its dignity and humanity. Some people need to be imprisoned, but the law should protect them too.

Further Reading

As Fyodor Dostoyevsky – the Russian novelist and philosopher — once said, “You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.”

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