Brazil - Brasil - BRAZZIL - News from Brazil - Jail Can be Quite Comfortable in Brazil - Brazilian Law - March 2003


March 2003

Five-Star Jail

Under Brazil's quaint penal code, criminals and
suspected criminals with a higher education qualification are
segregated from the unwashed in special prisons or
separate wings. It is obviously an unfair law. For
those without a diploma, though, a cell is hell.

John Fitzpatrick

About two years ago I was contacted by the news editor of a radio station in New Zealand who wanted to know if I could do an on-the-spot, live interview on a wave of prison riots in Brazil. She was taken aback when I told her the answer was "no" because: a) I was having lunch in a restaurant at that moment; b) I was nowhere near the worst affected prison; and c) I did not understand why anyone in New Zealand would be interested in what was as routine a news event in Brazil as the daily weather forecast.

In fact, that particular uprising drew media coverage throughout the world because the number of prisons involved was larger than usual and the uprising was coordinated. The fact that prisoners were communicating by cellular phone seemed to add a new dimension to an old story, that riveted the foreign and Brazilian press. However, within a day or two, foreign media interest shifted elsewhere and only the local press reported the ongoing riots, murders, wrecking, hostage taking etc, which occur on an almost daily basis here.

Action is sometimes taken. Shortly after these riots I was traveling to São Paulo's international airport at Guarulhos and saw a huge convoy of prisoners, escorted by troops and helicopters, being taken to the military airport to be flown elsewhere. Some prisons have been shut down. In one recent case, the public was invited to visit the notorious Carandiru jail in São Paulo before it was demolished. Thousands of curious citizens took the opportunity to do so. Carandiru was the site of the massacre of 111 inmates by the military police during a riot in 1992.

Politicians call for reform, human rights activists denounce overcrowding in cells, prison staff demand greater protection, yet the disturbances go on. Some people even claim that this continual unrest is, in fact, a conspiracy between inmates and some staff. Considering the bloody circumstances, it is surprising how few prison guards have been killed. There has always been a strange kind of symbiotic relationship between the jailer and the jailed and I would not be surprised if there were some truth in this.

Conditions inside the prisons are horrible. Gangs are in charge and life for the inmates can be dangerous if they are on the wrong side. Weapons and drugs are plentiful and gang leaders can still control events outside, cellular phones or no cellular phones. Although capital punishment does not exist officially in Brazil the prisoners themselves ensure that a certain number of criminals will pay the ultimate penalty, at the hands of their fellow inmates.

Murder is commonplace, often with sadistic dimensions, such as decapitating or dismembering the victims. Although it is difficult to feel sorry for most of these incarcerated brutes, it is always sad to see their mothers, wives and children gathering at the scene of the latest riot anxiously awaiting news. The memory of the Carandiru massacre is always in mind.

The Folha de S. Paulo newspaper recently showed a picture of about 10 inmates peering through the bars of tiny cell. They looked like animals in a zoo. This is the kind of picture that sends a shiver down the spine of every law-abiding male. There but for fortune....

However, our law-abiding male can take comfort in the fact that, if he is middle or upper class and does commit some crime, the chances of him ending up squeezed into a cage with dozens of ragged thieves and murderers are slim. The middle and upper classes have money to hire lawyers while the lower classes do not. Since judges are middle and upper class they will hesitate before sending one of their own into the hell of a normal prison. Never-ending bail or house arrest can keep the middle class criminal far from the madding crowd for years, if not forever.

And even if the crime is so serious that custody is imposed, the middle class criminal has a handy escape valve if he has a higher education. Under Brazil's quaint penal code, criminals and suspected criminals with a higher education qualification are segregated from the unwashed in special prisons or separate wings. I assume those who drafted and approved this particular law had their own interests in mind in case things went wrong some day. It is obviously an unfair law and, although it might offer relief to people who would not survive an hour in the jungle of a normal prison, it is precisely this kind of loophole that discourages any real reforms to the main system.

Veja magazine recently published an article on the special wing of a detention center in Casa Verde in São Paulo where these graduate prisoners are awaiting trial. According to the magazine, there are currently around 30 prisoners including 10 lawyers (he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword), three doctors (one of whom is a pederast who foolishly made videos of himself abusing boys, and another a plastic surgeon who dismembered his former girlfriend), three teachers, two economists, two engineers, a systems analyst, a dentist, a nurse, a vet and publicity agent.

A jailer was quoted as saying: "They are real gentlemen and don't give us any trouble. When it's time to lock them up in the cells they go in without needing to be told." There are five cells, each measuring 12 square meters. The cells are very different from those in normal prisons and contain a fridge, micro-wave oven, television, air conditioner, a toilet, sink and electric-powered shower. Relatives can bring food, hygiene products, furniture and electro-domestic items. Veja compared the Casa Verde detention center with another in Santo Amaro which houses 162 prisoners, more than five times as many. This shows that when it comes to looking after its intellectual property Brazil cannot be criticized.

Since the current system of privileged conditions for educated inmates is unlikely to change, maybe colleges should exploit this aspect in their advertising as one of the advantages of a higher education.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações— , which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at

© John Fitzpatrick 2003

You can also read John Fitzpatrick's articles in Infobrazil, at

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