Sam Geijer studied Cultural Anthropology and Developement Sociology and is an entrepreneur engaging in topics related to social exclusion, (adapted) sports, mega sports events, crime and Latin America. In this blog he shares his insights on the Brazilian prison system.
The violent riots that rocked the Brazilian prison system in January 2017 shocked the country and even got picked up by international media. In the first two weeks of the New Year 134 homicides were committed throughout various prisons in the North, North East of the tropical country. In the whole of 2016 372 murders were committed in penitentiaries in Brazil, these two defining weeks cranked up the count for 2017 rapidly. While these were horrific acts, my interest in violence and crime drives me to follow events like these closely and eventually write about them as well. This blog will provide an insight in the secondhand experiences I had with the Brazilian penal system.
As a Dutch national with lots of opportunities, both educational and professional, I am intrigued by target groups who suffer from social exclusion and still find a force deep inside them to get ahead in life. I like to hear their stories and create a better understanding of their thoughts, since their strength inspires me. Normally I work with people who conquer excluding barriers on a positive way, for example disabled people who seek and achieve inclusion via sports participation. However for my master research I decided to focus on people that were (physically) excluded from society because they had chosen or were forced into a criminal way of life. Before my master year even started I already knew the topic for my thesis would be: Dutch nationals locked up in Brazil and their ability to survive in the harsh circumstances. During my literature research, on the Brazilian prison system and the phenomenon of being locked up in a foreign jail cell, I was working on practical preparations to realize this project. During these preparations I met with several institutions that provided support to Dutch inmates abroad, also to those locked up in Brazil. I was warned that it would be very difficult to get this research off the ground, since rules and regulations regarding this type of activity were strict in some parts of the country. With this in mind I focused myself on a particular prison in the state of São Paulo, where only foreign inmates were housed, around 1300 at that time. This specific penitentiary had served in the past as a place solely for sex offenders, in order to keep them away from violent acts of the regular prison population.
However it had been transformed into a facility just for foreigners, as at some point in time Brazilian prison gangs threatened to murder foreign inmates to create political pressure. In order to prevent this from happening, all foreign inmates who were dispersed over various prisons in the state of São Paulo ended up in the same place. Further away from gangs that rule institutions throughout the country. So this specific penitentiary seemed to be the right place to find my target group. After some bureaucratic procedures I got the confirmation to do my fieldwork in the penitentiary so off I went. Before my arrival I was keeping track of the news related to the facility and just seven months before my arrival a large-scale riot had taken place. Nobody had died during the chaos, which was quite a unique thing according to one of my respondents.
However some scars of the commotion were still visible as there were marks of a fire in the room where I did my interviews. The circumstances here could be called better than ’normal’ Brazilian institutions, however they were still far from ideal. A cell built for nine was housing 16 people, so several were sleeping on the floor. Around 45% of the inmates were made up of South Americans, another 45% of Africans and nationals from other continents made up the rest. Most of the inmates here were in for international drug trafficking, as the airports of São Paulo and the harbor in Santos serve as a transshipment point of mainly cocaine. Most of my respondents were first timers in the Brazilian penal system, with no ties to the country. However there were a couple who were living in the state of São Paulo and involved in (gang-related) crime. As I was talking to my respondents I tried to understand their pasts and their ways of coping with past and present circumstances. I did not found all of them hardened criminals you would expect in this position, however of the 15 men I interviewed two had never been incarcerated before and of two others I did not know if they had previous convictions. So the majority of the Dutch nationals had experience with living in a confined environment. Something I recognized to be helpful in their coping with this current sentence. For two men it was the first jail time ever, I found this quite interesting since I myself would prefer a stepping stone (Dutch prison) into this life instead of a major leap (Brazilian one).
Interesting is the fact that when they get back to the Netherlands they will have no criminal record, so they should have no problem with that while looking for work. The ages of my respondents varied, the youngest was 22 and the eldest 72 at the time. Most of the men had an unfortunate background (e.g. they stemmed from unstable families and had substance addictions), which made them commit drug trafficking crimes in order to get out of financially difficult situations. A minority saw it as a way of life, being locked up was worth the risk they took in order to fulfill their financial motives. One man was working on his own and got caught, his dream was to become a millionaire and this was just a hick-up in his plan. Some were pretty experienced in the scene of international incarcerations, with the elderly man leading the ranks. In the course of his life he had been locked up in the Netherlands three or four times, in Belgium, Surinam, Peru an right now Brazil. During this current prison time he actually still had to be in Peruvian custody, however he had fled, got back in the Netherlands, in the same financial misery and got offered a new drug run to (and from) São Paulo.
One of my respondents I had met before leaving for my fieldwork. He was back after his sentence, which he served in the Alcaçuz prison in Natal. The coast nearby this city had for me once served as a sunny getaway, however for him this was a place of incarceration for four years. This horrific place held Brazilian inmates and he was the only foreigner in his wing with 500 others. The reason why I highlight his case is because during the riots of January this year 26 people were killed in Alcaçuz. Several of them were decapitated, gruesome acts from which an inmate with a cellphone even uploaded a video online. During a riot that lasted several days, inmates were able to roam free throughout the prison and created a large battlefield between two opposing gangs. Inmates were armed with sticks, bars, shanks, knives and there was even a guy wielding a pistol. My respondent had indicated similar violent stories, which I then of course believed but got backed with more context by the recent outbreak. Back then they were locked up with 20 to 25 people in a cell suited for eight. The Dutch inmate had been sleeping on the floor for a year, after which he had bought a bunk. He stated that they were locked up for 24 hours a day during the week and in the weekends they were able to leave their cells. He recalled that inmates were doing their own things in this shared space; some were smoking heroin, others were sharpening their knives. The Dutch ex-inmate stated that he was walking on eggshells, he had to keep a low profile while still standing up for himself from time to time. His crime was drug trafficking, which gave him a better status than petty thieves. However his foreign background made him a target sometimes, as people tried to extort money and it was easy to pick on him while violence erupted. ‘Hey let’s get the gringo’ he recalled hearing once.
However the usual targets of prison violence are snitches, people with debts and child molesters. My respondent had seen on one occasion how someone’s head was used as a soccer ball and how the intestines of a sex offender were thrown onto the yard in order to demonstrate that this is what happens to you if you commit similar crimes. While these stories are hard to believe, I did not question them then and with the acts that happened in January they are even more plausible.
An important factor of the violence that permeates the Brazilian penal system is the presence of various gangs. These gangs could be national or local to a state. Nevertheless the different power groups present in one overcrowded facility with the lack of hygiene; food and water can make it a combustive place. I will not go into details here, as the uprising of prison gangs, their power in society and the poor prison conditions are worth various blogs. However due to the fact that these gangs had less rigid ties in the prison for foreigners in São Paulo it appeared to be less dangerous for its inmates. One thing I know for sure is that I would never want to end up in a place like that, I will just enjoy my writings and social/anthropological adventures. Thank you for reading!