RIO DE JANEIRO, (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Brazil’s Attorney General will likely ask the Supreme Court to order a federal intervention in Maranhão state’s prison system after the gruesome killings of inmates at a jail in the state capital São Luiz drew international outrage and calls from the United Nations and human rights groups for a solution to the violence.
A shocking video surfaced this week showing inmates of the Pedrinhas Penitentiary Complex playing with the decapitated bodies of three prisoners. That, and other violent episodes inside and outside the prison in the past few months, has led authorities to question Maranhão state’s ability to run the prison system.
Since January 2013, at least 62 inmates have been killed at the Pedrinhas complex, which has a capacity for 1,700 prisoners but currently houses 2,500 men, according to Brazil’s National Justice Council (CNJ). Several rebellions took place last year, and violence has spread to gang fighting outside the complex.
Council Judge Douglas Martins inspected the prison on Dec. 20 and reported that female visitors were often raped by inmates belonging rival gangs. A shortage of space forced wives to meet their husbands in open pavilions during conjugal visits, according to the judge’s report. Other inmates offered sexual favors from their own female family members to the leaders of gangs as a way to guarantee protection inside the jail, the report added.
A video purportedly recorded on Dec. 17, and posted on the website of Brazilian daily Folha de S. Paulo on Jan. 7, showed gory scenes of inmates posing with the bodies and decapitated heads of three fellow prisoners. In October, a rebellion at Pedrinhas left at least 10 dead and dozens injured, and prompted the federal government to send troops from Brazil’s National Security Force to patrol the prison complex.
Justice Minister Eduardo Cardozo met with Maranhão Governor Roseana Sarney yesterday and announced the creation of a committee formed by the state and federal governments, as well as representatives from the judiciary system, to manage the crisis. Public defendants will organize a task force to process cases of inmates who have completed their sentences but are still in jail because of the unwieldy bureaucracy in Brazil’s justice system.
The proposed federal intervention would include the appointment of a new authority to run Maranhão state's prison system for certain period. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff commented on the case for the first time today, saying on Twitter that the Justice Ministry had offered to transfer inmates from Maranhão to federal detention centers.
Sarney, who this week said reports of human rights abuses at the prison have been exaggerated by sensationalist media, said violence was escalating in Maranhão because the state was getting richer.
"One of the problems that’s hurting security in our state is that our state is getting richer, and it’s more populous too," Sarney said in a press conference on Thursday.
Maranhão is one of Brazil’s poorest states, and has been governed by the Sarney family for nearly five decades. The governor’s father, José Sarney, was president of Brazil from 1985-1990. Maranhão has the second-worst Human Development Index among Brazil’s 27 states. Per capita income, at 348 reais ($146.20) per month, is the lowest in Brazil, and only 6.5 percent of Maranhão’s municipalities have treated sewage. Nearly 21 percent of residents are illiterate, compared with the national average of 8.7 percent, according to Brazil’s statistics institute IBGE.
The state is also among Brazil’s most violent: murders in the capital São Luis more than quintupled in the past ten years, and reached 807 in 2013, according to the state security secretariat. The ratio of police officers per resident is the lowest in Brazil, at 1 per 710, compared with 1 per 135 in Brazil’s capital Brasilia.