Behind bars in Brazil: Inequality reigns even in jail

Medium & BBC Brasil

CURITIBA, Paraná — Brazil oozes inequality: while some live in abject poverty, others get rich from the country’s commodities. A few, of course, get rich in ways that are less than legal. You might think that life behind bars would level out these huge differences in fortunes.

But in reality, while some rot in mouldy, dank cells without charge and given scant access even to daylight — others are given clean, fluffy pillows, regular medicals and TVs to watch.

Nowhere has this been more clearly exemplified than with the recent jailings of top executives, held over corruption and money laundering charges relating to Brazil’s biggest company.

While being hauled through the tangled web of Brazil’s courts, they are apparently afforded VIP treatment to the last.

Operation Lava Jato (Carwash) is continuing to investigate Brazil’s biggest-ever corruption scandal at state-run oil giant Petrobras — once a jewel in the country’s crown of commodity companies.

Prosecutors say inflated contracts were signed over years between Petrobras and a slew of the country’s top construction companies, with the difference (an as-yet unknown number of billions of dollars) skimmed off and channelled to political parties, including President Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, with everyone lining their pockets in the process.

The Supreme Court recently gave the green light for prosecutors to investigate 47 politicians, past and present, including a former president and both acting leaders of Congress. Despite being chairperson during much of the time the wrongdoing is alleged to have taken place, President Rousseff has denied all knowledge at the time, and will not be investigated, the Supreme Court ruled.

Well before investigators turned their sights to the political world, the dozen-or-so rounds of arrests that Operation Lava Jato has so far undertaken has seen a whole raft of top executives from Brazil’s biggest companies detained and held in Curitiba, capital of the southern state of Paraná — some since mid-2014.

This week, a court ordered the executives released from jail to be transferred to house arrest. Some had been held at the Federal Police headquarters in Curitiba, and others at a medical prison complex (Complexo Médico-Penal do Paraná, CMP) just outside the city.

Prison inspection

Last week, in what was to be their final days at the hospital prison, I was granted access, as part of an inspection by the Brazilian Bar Association, the OAB, to see three prisons: two regular state prisons and the medical prison — including the wing where nine Lava Jato executives were being held.

While the medical prison is certainly no holiday camp, the difference between the cells in which the Lava Jatos were being held and even others prisoners in the same penitentiary — let alone inmates at the frankly grotesque regular prisons we were later set to see — was clear.

Apparently, even behind bars, criminals with political friends and millions in the bank are given favourable treatment.

The images below, taken with the prisoners’ consent, show how life for inmates in the same city can differ starkly.

Medical prison is generally regarded as an “easier” option, and for that reason the authorities have faced criticism over their decision to keep the majority of the Lava Jato executives there.

A regular cell in the Medical Prison Complex on the outskirts of Curitiba — larger windows, access to books and TVs in some cells.

This prison is designed to accommodate criminals with medical issues, some acute. The cells looked superficially a bit nicer than in regular prisons, but it is the attention afforded to the prisoners by staff, and what they can have in their cells, that is noticeably different.

Many inmates have mental health problems. A visit to the prison’s psychiatric ward is not something you will forget: some inmates gingerly peering out of their cell windows at the rabble of lawyers coming to pay them a visit; others are desperate for me to take their picture. Among the inmates on this wing is a heavily-pregnant teenager, charged with trafficking drugs — as so many in Brazil’s prisons.

Further along, a middle-aged woman stands in the middle of her cell alone. She beckons me closer. She is quiet as I look into her room. It is disturbing. She bows to me and then remains silent. It is like a kind of odd theatrical performance.

Some psychiatric prisoners here are desperate for conversation. Others are curled up in bed, some crying.

Despite the sadness of this wing, people here are more likely to be allowed a greater number of personal belongings in their cells: TVs are more common and not a major privilege for a good behaviour, as with the state prisons.

A typical six-to-a-room cell in the hospital wing of the medical prison — cluttered with personal belongings and medical equipment.

Although still in a dilapidated condition, these regular CMP cells are far better than many of those found in the regular state prisons.

Fluffy pillows

The lawyers are keen to see the conditions in which the Lava Jato executives are being held. The difference, even within the same jail, is stark.

Cells 601, 602 and 603 each held three executives detained under Operation Lava Jato.

While this prison is still overcrowded — 692 inmates squeezed in to 554 spaces, on the day — Wing 6, where at least nine of the Lava Jato suspects were being held, is clearly not. Some cells are empty. The corridor is clean and appears recently refurbished.

Curitiba’s CMP held nine Lava Jato executives until 29 April.


One of the cells holding three Lava Jato prisoners at the time of our visit.

Three to a cell, here inmates have clean, comfortable mattresses and pillows, and round-the-clock access to TVs, books, stationery. The windows are larger, although the rooms are still dark.

While a far cry from the executives’ millionaire lifestyles, these cells are almost palatial compared to the others — including maternal wings housing newborn babies in the women’s state prison. The sickening smell that prisoners have to endure on other wings is noticeably absent.

That said, prison life has clearly taken a toll on the executives, who look tired and grey-faced. They stand out from other prisoners: their mannerisms, language and the remnants of expensive haircuts give them away in a heartbeat. We cannot photograph or film them.

An unoccupied cell on Wing 6 — despite seeing six to a cell in other parts of the medical prison. Note the comfortable mattresses and pillows.

They have lists of questions for the visiting lawyers, with whom the executives are desperate to talk — extending their arms out of the slit in the door to shake the OAB representatives’ hands.

“I spend all my time in here studying my defence case,” one executive detained by the Petrobras graft probe investigators said. “That’s my only focus.”

‘Real’ prison

The medical prison is still clearly a jail and not a holiday camp. But as we later see, there are prisoners with medical problems being held in the regular jails.

We drive to the other extreme of the city to see the complex of state penitentiaries — we visit one for men, another for women.

While reports from prisons elsewhere, particularly in the northeast of Brazil, have shown far worse conditions in terms of severe overcrowding and violence, these penitentiaries are still a place of misery.

We file into the heart of the first — women’s — jail. The smell still lingers in my nostrils, and the suffering in my retinas, a week later.

A female prisoner at the women’s state penitentiary near Curitiba, south Brazil. The message on the wall reads: “May God unite [us]. No distance can separate [us]”

Inspectors speak with prisoners in the rancid solitary confinement wing of this dilapidated men’s state penitentiary near Curitiba to assess whether their human rights are being violated by prison staff.

‘No doctors, lawyers or sunlight’

Inmates in the regular state prisons said they were not being abused or assaulted by guards — a common complaint among many in Brazil’s 680,000-strong prison population and therefore something regularly probed by the inspectors.

They did say, however, that they were being deprived of time outside in the sunlight, as well as pointing out an absence of access to professional medical attention and legal services.

Also, while female prisoners get hot showers, this luxury is not extended to the men’s prison on the other side of the complex. You might think this isn’t a problem in Brazil, but bear in mind Curitiba’s cooler climate and high relatively high altitude mean temperatures regularly dip to single digits at night in winter.

Conditions in part of the women’s prison were in a horrible condition, given some 44 children under the age of 2 are being held along with their mothers. Some we met were cradling babies just a few days old.

Many of the women come to prison already pregnant. When their due date comes, they are taken to a hospital for a quick, planned C-section birth, and then brought back to jail as soon as possible — baby in arms.

At the time of our visit, officials said there were 44 babies — all under the age of two — living in the prison with the 400 jailed mothers. One was cradling her baby boy, Fabrício, who was just 20 days old.

The women work between six and eight hours a day, in sticking together products for a graphic design company, or stitching together guards’ uniforms. Every three days completed lops off one from their sentence.

Some also have access to maths and reading-writing classes. Seeing these classrooms was a small ray of hope in what is otherwise a sea of despair.

Around 90% of prisoners here at the women’s prison are serving time for or are being held on charges of drug trafficking. Many have taken the rap for crimes committed by relatives — husbands, sons, uncles — to make sure the family drugs business can be continued by the men.

Complaints about the quality of food in the prisons was universal. The rice in this lunchtime meal was barely cooked.

Inedible food

There was one universal complaint about all the prisons: the quality of the food. Between us, we tasted at least seven or eight meals: rice with puréed potatoes, onions and chicken. Uncooked rice, in particular, was a common feature.

A few hard grains of rice seemed like a lucky day, though, given some of the complaints: some moaned of rotten vegetables, others of finding insects in their meals: “We found bugs in the aubergine one day and we have to feed this food to our children here,” said one female inmate, cradling a toddler.

To make matters somehow worse, some inmates in the women’s prison have to work in a on-site kitchen, preparing food for the prison staff — which they don’t get to eat. Their almost-inedible food is shipped in. You wouldn’t feed it to a dog, quite frankly.

Another frequent complaint was that prisoners were being held far from their families, some of whom are forced to make a 1,000-kilometre round trip to visit them. By law, their sentence should be served as close as possible to home.

But many of the inmates have been held there for over a year and still don’t have a date set for their trial. Until they are serving their sentence, the rule about being located near home doesn’t apply.

The human rights lawyers conducting the inspection said there are far worst prisons in Brazil, and that police stations in the area being used as makeshift prisons suffer from overcrowding to a far greater extent that these penitentiaries. But the complaints are serious and will be investigated.

This prisoner, in solitary confinement, was a member of the PCC — a criminal gang run from inside Brazil’s prisons in at least 22 states around the country. He wants to be an Evangelic priest when he gets out in 13 years’ time.

But there are greater concerns.

“One of the biggest problems with Brazil’s prisons is that petty criminals go in, and hardened criminals — ready to be ruthless soldiers for the PCC and other criminal factions — come out,” Adilson Rocha, president of the OAB’s national prison commission, said.

It’s not an issue limited to Brazil, of course. But here the PCC is active in at least 22 states. Inmates pay bribes to gain access to mobile phones, or get them smuggled in. Crimes committed on the outside are regularly orchestrated from behind bars.

The conditions inside the men’s prison were far worse than the women’s. Prison, of course, should be a punishment, but the smell reigning in the facility — a mixture of body odour, fear, strong cleaning products and nauseating prison food — made me feel sick.

Some cells were overcrowded — the prison had 250 prisoners more than the 1,440 it was designed for — but this wasn’t the main issue in these prisons. Other prisons have packed four-five times the number of inmates officially allowed.

Of far greater concern to the OAB was the reported lack of medical services and legal representation. These are severe breaches in human rights if proven. The lawyers speak with a large number of prisoners, with guards and other custodians requested to stand away, out of earshot; repeatedly, complaints draw shocked looks from the lawyers’ faces.

Ingrained inequality

As we inspect several parts of these two state-wide jails, and with the medical prisons still in mind, the lawyers point out one inmate with a knee injury, another with a severe hernia, and one with a colostomy bag, suspected of being infected, hanging from his body.

“Why are they not in the medical prison?” one of the OAB inspectors asks. Others in the state prison were also clearly suffering from depression. Doesn’t that count as requiring medical assistance?

Why did the Lava Jato executives, now being held under house arrest in the comfort of their own homes, get to stay in comparatively palatial cells, given they are fit and healthy?

No, the Lava Jatos are not murderers. Yes, they are still awaiting sentencing — as with numerous others in these jails. No one is saying that life behind bars, however clean they may be, is easy, or that they should be kept in the squalor of other penitentiaries we visited as a kind of punishment.

But the sheer injustice of this apparent VIP treatment for the executives leaves a really nasty taste in the mouth as we leave.

It appears that the inequality that splits Brazil so deeply and in so many ways is still alive and kicking.

Leaving to compile their reports, the lawyers ask an apparently rhetorical question: Now the Petrobras graft investigators are turning the sights to powerful politicians, what would prison life be like for those political figures who might eventually be tried and jailed for their involvement in the vast corruption scandal?

That, they joked mournfully, is likely to be another story altogether.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s