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No Vacancy in Brazil's Big House

Inmates took more than 600 hostages last week. Why? Brazil's prisons are packed.

When police stormed a So Paulo maximum-security prison last Wednesday, freeing more than 600 hostages, experts feared they merely won a reprieve in an increasingly alarming national prison crisis.

"The Brazilian prison system is a time bomb," says James Cavallaro, Brazil director of Human Rights Watch/Americas. "The absolute lack of even the most minimum conditions are so glaring that it's a miracle that there aren't more rebellions."

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As crime rises in Latin America, prisons jammed to two and three times their capacity have become flash points for violence and human rights violations. In recent years, hundreds of prisoners have been killed in riots in Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil.

In Brazil, escape attempts, rebellions, and hostage taking are common prisoner tactics to protest conditions that a leading newspaper has likened to "Dante's 'Inferno,' life in a state of permanent torture."

The nation's prisons are severely overcrowded and provide only substandard food, hygiene, and medical care. According to a 1995 prison census, there were 148,760 inmates crammed into a space meant for 65,000. Tens of thousands of prisoners are held for months and even years in police precincts, which are not equipped for stays longer than a few weeks. In some cases, prisoners share the same bed by sleeping in shifts.

Occasionally, inmates have protested their plight by committing suicide or holding a "death lottery," in which prisoners names are drawn and the "winner" is strangled. Killings continue until demands are met.

In the latest incident, inmates at Sorocaba Prison, about 50 miles west of So Paulo, seized more than 600 hostages after a botched escape attempt. After a three-day standoff, 200 police invaded the prison after they discovered that inmates had dug a tunnel and planned to escape on New Year's Day. The police overpowered the rioters, freeing prison guards and hundreds of prisoners' relatives. No one was killed.

As in most riots, the Sorocaba inmates were protesting overcrowding. Sorocaba, which has a capacity for 500 prisoners, houses some 900 inmates.

The decaying penal system is a result of Brazil's inefficient justice system. The same 1995 prison census shows that nearly 45 percent of prisoners have not been sentenced, and poor recordkeeping means many are incarcerated beyond their terms. Rights groups point to a So Paulo man who served 15 years for stealing a bicycle before his records were corrected and he was freed.

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Legal experts estimate that 35 percent of prisoners are eligible for parole or early-release programs, but languish in jail because of backlogged courts. An estimated 250,000 outstanding warrants are "on hold" since there is no place to put new prisoners, officials concede.

In a hotly debated decision, Brasila Criminal Court Judge George Lopes Leite released 158 prisoners in August because of his city's overpopulated jails. "This system does not rehabilitate or educate anyone," Mr. Leite said. "A criminal leaves prison with more criminal potential than when he entered."

President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has taken steps to repair the nation's crumbling penal system. He increased the prison budget from $4 million in 1994 to $110 million in 1997 and ordered 53 prisons built in 1997 and another 52 in 1998.

In July, Brazil's lower house passed a bill giving judges the option to sentence first-time offenders serving up to four years in prison to community service or probation. If the bill passes the Senate, 30,000 inmates, or 20 percent of the prison population, could be immediately released, legal experts say.

Nowhere will that option be more appreciated than in So Paulo, the state with the most prisoners and the most rebellions. In 1989, 18 prisoners suffocated at a precinct after police locked 51 inmates for three hours into a windowless cell that measured 5 by 10 feet.

In 1992, police stormed the Carandiru prison to put down a riot, killing 111 inmates, mostly by summary execution after they had returned to their cells. By last November, there were 582 escape attempts and 178 riots.

"The rebellions that we have been seeing ... are the logical consequences of a system that is in a desperate state of crisis," says Mr. Cavallaro. "If concrete measures aren't taken soon, this is only the beginning."

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