Brazil Has Become a Gangland
With the country’s politics plagued by scandal and corruption, Brazil’s gangs are fighting a deadly and brazen turf war — inside and out of the broken prison system.
Brazilian officials are eager to point out that the United States faces many of the same problems, but Brazil can stand to learn from the errors of the world’s leader in mass incarceration before it doubles down on drug enforcement and prison expansion. In the United States, expanding the prison system strengthened prison gangs, rather than weakened them, and the states with the largest prison systems — California and Texas — have a disproportionately large presence of organized gangs that control drugs and crime beyond the prison walls. In the United States, the free-market impulse to privatize incarceration has resulted in lax oversight and egregious human rights violations. Although only 3 percent of Brazilian prisons are private, almost 40 percent are privately run in Amazonas, where the prison population has doubled since 2010 in response to a crackdown on drug trafficking.
Brazil’s private prison-management lobby is eager for the corrections system to emulate the United States in its effort to modernize failing prisons, but as local, state, and federal governments reel from the findings of sprawling, ongoing corruption investigations, the country needs desperately to crack down on big prison contracts that have little oversight. The family-owned Pamas consortium — a joint venture between private prison companies LFG and Umanizzare, which allegedly donated campaign funds to Gov. José Melo in 2014 — controls the private prisons of Amazonas. Those contracts are under investigation for possible fraud and price gouging, though the companies defend their pricing on the basis that their operations costs are higher than average in the remote region, and the governor claims that the state awarded the contracts through legal means.
The state and Umanizzare would have the public believe that inmates are acquiring new skills at IPAT’s “Nuclear Learning Center,” designed to train 30 students to become either firefighters or plumbers once they leave. But on the day of my visit, the facility was devoid of books or desks. Nobody could seem to find the keys to the classrooms. At the exit of the empty room, a handwritten sign read: Don’t just throw your papers on the floor.
“We have to transform these people into good citizens, to reeducate them, to reintegrate them to society, to return them better than when they entered,” Florêncio said, “but that vision is almost utopian.” Asked to identify the resources he needs most, he answered without hesitation: “Today the most important priority is food, absolutely.”
During a tour of the IPAT kitchen, the Umanizarre handlers slipped on hairnets (for my benefit) while the staff turned meat on the grill and stirred an enormous pot of stew, boasting of the 3,000 meals they serve each day, including special fare for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Florêncio cited prison food as the leading cause of rampant gastrointestinal illness in the system.
That day, I interviewed guards and operations managers over lunch in the staff cafeteria. “A lot of Brazilians don’t have enough respect for how serious the security situation is here, for how we’re working,” Ramos said, digging into a slab of beef with a metal knife and fork. Staff keep their own sets of metal cutlery in little pouches in a secure locker area to make sure not a single scrap of metal reaches the hands of prisoners, though it’s not unusual for Brazilian prisoners to be shanked or decapitated with metal cutlery. “We’re having some success,” Ramos said. “I stand by the system. I stand by my state.”
The staff seemed surprised when I dug into my plate of rice, beans, spaghetti, and a little cup of Coke.
“How do you like the monkey meat?” one guard asked — and old joke about prison food in Brazil.
“We’re just playing around,” another guard said. “It’s beef. Really.”