Terrible conditions led to prison riots, says union boss

Overcrowding and corruption at root of problem
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The Independent US

The biggest prison uprising in Brazil's history was just a trial balloon for a massive rebellion against a penal system plagued by overcrowding and corruption, the head of a prison guards' union warns.

The biggest prison uprising in Brazil's history was just a trial balloon for a massive rebellion against a penal system plagued by overcrowding and corruption, the head of a prison guards' union warns.

"The uprising was a way of testing the government and its capacity to react," Nilson de Oliveira, president of the Sao Paulo State Correction Workers Union, said. "It was nothing more than a dress rehearsal for a mega-rebellion that can explode any time."

Just one day after the end of wild rebellions that swept through 29 prisons, some 800 inmates at another jail took nine guards hostage yesterday, Brazil's O Globo news agency reported.

Police surrounded the latest restive jail - Pirajui Penitentiary, 200 miles north-west of Sao Paulo - and were negotiating with the prisoners late yesterday.

The riot came less than 24 hours after authorities regained control of 29 facilities in Sao Paulo state following a day-long uprising that left 16 inmates dead, and a nation asking just who is in charge behind its bars: the government or organized crime?

Officials said the uprising was orchestrated by the First Capital Command gang, known by its Portuguese-language initials as PCC. Officials "underestimated" the strength of the PCC, said Marco Vinicio Petreluzzi, Sao Paulo's public security secretary.

Tuesday's uprising at Parajui was also organized by First Capital Command, O Globo reported.

Brazilian authorities acknowledge that neglect, corruption and overcrowding have pushed the nation's prisons to the verge of explosion. Rebellions among the 94,000 inmates in Sao Paulo state are almost a daily occurrence.

Across Sao Paulo state, an estimated 800 new inmates get dumped into prisons each month, and overcrowding is chronic. In many prisons, inmates sleep in shifts or standing up, tied to the wall with sheets because there's no room to lie down.

The main facility in Carandiru, the massive prison complex in the city of Sao Paulo where Sunday's uprising began, was built for 3,200 prisoners but now holds some 7,500.

Julita Lemgruber, a former head of the Rio de Janeiro state Prison Administration, said Brazil needs room for an additional 70,000 prisoners just to meet today's demand, and a federal government pledge of US$15.5 million in emergency aid for Sao Paulo prisons is woefully inadequate.

"The Sao Paulo prison situation has been a problem for years and years," said Nagashi Furukawa, Sao Paulo State secretary of prison administration.

What's changing is the profile of the prison population, said Sergio Adorno, of the University of Sao Paulo's Center for the Study of Violence.

"Unlike most prisoners of the past, today's average inmate is younger, smarter, meaner and less prone to submit to the discipline of prison life," Adorno said. "He has organizational skills, learned on the outside, and is unafraid to challenge authority."

Corrupt or lax guards have little control over inmates.

Ringleaders of Sunday's uprising had guns and coordinated the rebellion by cellular phone. Many come from the ruthless drug gangs that control big-city slums - 60 percent of inmates are in on drug charges.

Adorno said Brazil's glacial-paced legal system and the lack of efficient rehabilitation programs also give rise to groups like PCC, which competes for allegiance with others including the Red Command, the Satanic Sect, the Dragons, and the Friends of Friends.

Veterans of Carandiru predict more violence.

"The groups that control the prisons are well organized," O Globo quoted former inmate Josemir Jose Fernandes Prado as saying. "There will certainly be a war very soon."

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