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Inside Brazil's most overcrowded prison

With a capacity for 2,069 inmates, the Porto Alegre prison has twice that number.
Last modified: 30 Jan 2014 17:04

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – Noeli Borges is lining up outside the Central Prison in this city waiting to visit her incarcerated teenage son, jailed for allegedly being caught with drugs.

"I've been told the conditions are horrible inside the jail, is that true?" I ask her. "Horrible?" she shot back without delay. "No, welcome to hell."

To see for myself, I accompanied a visit of local judges on a recent inspection of the prison.

The day we visited, the jail had 4,470 inmates. It has a capacity for 2,069.

Welcome to Brazil's most overcrowded prison, one of the worst places in the country to be incarcerated.

Entering the Central Prison is a surreal experience of a network of hallways and staircases that passes by cells that are supposed to hold four inmates, but where it's obvious eight to 10 are crammed inside at night.

One of the main prison blocks that houses several hundred inmates was emptied for our visit.

On the hallway floor, dozens of mattresses were piled up, bags of clothes hung from the walls next to crude, handmade, electricity lines that were stitched together. If there were to be a fire, there would be little help, as the extinguisher was missing.

All the doors were ripped off the individual cells by the inmates. In the prison block, inmates mix freely amongst themselves and guards rarely enter this area.

One cell was turned into a makeshift kitchen. It was filthy with a layer of black grime covering everything, a cockroach scurrying about, raw sewage dumped out the window into the prison yard below.

There were several open shower heads, next to a hold in the ground that was a toilet.

In the prison yard, flies circled around a pile of rubbish in the open sun.

Prisoners used rope to pass down food and who-knows-what-else to inmates in cells below or in an adjacent yard.

In the hallways of the main complex, new inmates with nowhere to go are left standing, sometimes for days, in a holding area.

Prison guards prevented us from freely interviewing inmates.

'Absurd number'

"The Central Prison is a symbol of everything a prison should not be," said Jose Brzuska, an outspoken local judge. "It has an absurd number of prisoners."

Gelson Treiesleben, the superintendent of the state prison system, says he can't solve the problem until three new jails are built in the state, all of which are still under construction.

"I cannot improve the conditions without taking some inmates out of there, and I can’t build new jails from one day to the next," he said.

A new central kitchen has been built, a special wing exclusively for gay and lesbian inmates, and tuberculosis testing is now being done.

But Lisiane Alves, the president of the state association of public defenders, said the entire complex needs to be imploded.

"It's a dungeon," she said of the prison conditions. "A concentration camp of psychological deterioration of humans."

Brazil's prison population has gone from about 130,000 in 2000, to 563,700 today.

A recent audit found that Brazil has capacity for 363,500 inmates nationwide, meaning the country has about 202,000 more inmates than they have space.

Only the United States, China and Russia have more people incarcerated than Brazil.

Back outside the Central Prison, mothers, wives and girlfriends of inmates wait in line for visitation.

They all carry big sacks filled with snacks, toilet paper and soap, all of which are in short supply in the jail.

"If I bring toilet paper my son will be able to clean himself," Mrs Borges tells me. "If I bring soap, he will be able to take a shower. But if I don't bring these things, he won't be able to."

And her son? He's 19 and been incarcerated for three months. The Central Prison is so overcrowded, he's yet to have his first court appearance.


Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @ElizondoGabriel
With additional reporting from Maria Elena Romero @MarBrazil