Brazil’s chronicle of a death foretold

Yet again, women gather outside prison gates to find out if their loved ones are still alive. This time, it’s Pedrinhas Prison, in the state of Maranhão, in the northeast of Brazil.

On Tuesday, a local news outlet broadcast a video, delivered by Sindspem, a prison workers’ union, showing the decapitated bodies of three prisoners in Pedrinhas. Local, national, and international agencies yet again decried the situation in Brazil’s prison system, and in particular at Pedrinhas. In 2013, 60 or more prisoners were killed in Maranhão prisons. Maranhão is bad, and Pedrinhas is bad. But Pedrinhas is not the worst. The worst is that it’s typical.

Pedrinhas is designed to hold 1700 prisoners. It currently houses 2500. By Brazilian standards, that’s not so bad. The entire system is supposed to hold no more than 3,300 prisoners, and actually holds 6,200. Pedrinhas may be intolerably overcrowded, but, by Brazilian standards, it’s not so bad.

At the end of last year, a judicial report listed cases of torture, assassination, and sexual violence. Women visiting loved ones have been raped by gang leaders. As one judge put it, “The relatives of the powerless prisoners inside the jail are paying this price so that they won’t be murdered.” The relatives have paid the price all along, for their loved ones but also for `national development.’

Maranhão is a particular case. The Brazilian `economic miracle’ hasn’t quite reached the northeast state. Of Brazil’s 27 states, Maranhão has the second-worst Human Development Index. Its per capita income is Brazil’s lowest in Brazil. Where Brazil’s national illiteracy rate is just below 9 percent. Maranhão’s is over 20 percent. One family, the Sarneys, have ruled the state for almost fifty years. Not surprisingly, the Sarneys claim the press is being sensationalist, the report is the work of disgruntled employees, and the overcrowding is a result of slow courts.

In that last claim, the Sarneys are not altogether wrong. Where Maranhão is an outlier State, Pedrinhas is just one of the gang. Brazil boasts the world’s fourth largest prison population. In the past twenty years, the prison population has increased 380 percent, while the national population has only gone up by 30 percent. From 2000 to 2012, the number of prisoners awaiting trial skyrocketed from just below 81,000 to close to 200,000, an increase of 250% in 12 years. HIV prevalence among prisoners in Brazil is one of the highest in the world.

And for women? The incarceration of women has kept pace with the national trend, which is to say it’s risen quickly over the last twenty years. Women’s prisons are overcrowded. Women prisoners have high rates of HIV. Half of women prisoners are young (18 to 29 years old). Two-thirds are categorized as Black or Mixed race, and two-thirds of women prisoners are in for “drug trafficking”.

Sound familiar? It should.

And what’s the proposed solution to the twenty-year surge in incarceration that has criminally overcrowded prisons, by criminalizing and then militarizing urban poor and working-class populations? Privatization!

None of the Pedrinhas story is a surprise. It’s been Brazil’s public policy for twenty years. For Lucia Nader, executive director of Conectas, “The tragedy in Pedrinhas was foretold.” The real tragedy is that there is no tragedy. There is only redundancy, murmurs of complicity, and, then, as in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the inconceivable: “It was inconceivable that they would suddenly abandon their pastoral spirit to avenge a death for which we all could have been to blame.”


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About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.