Behind the Olympics: Brazil's Dirty Incarceration Secret
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s more to prisons than Orange Is the New Black.
By Beth McLoughlin
“Brazil’s prisons are illegal, and if I wanted to, I could set thousands of prisoners free,” Luis Carlos Valois declares. It is both a comment on the power of judges in Brazil to interpret the law at will, and an insight into Valois’ rebelliousness. Seated behind his huge wooden desk, with an enormous flag of Brazil posted nearby, he cuts an imposing figure. But his shaved head, muscles and tattoos make Valois resemble the Brazilian jujitsu champion he was in 1995 more than an establishment man.
OK, he concedes, he would end up behind bars himself if he really unleashed thousands of prisoners into the streets. But he’s serious about using the system to do just that. His work agitating for better prison conditions and offering lenient sentences for petty drug offenses has earned him at least one death threat and a flurry of bad press. Under Brazilian and international law, prisons in Brazil are supposed to provide inmates access to healthcare, individual cells and protection from death threats. In reality, however, prisons in Manaus are two to three times more crowded than they should be, Valois says, with scores of inmates sharing the same cell. Access to basic healthcare was described as “inadequate” in a 2014 Human Rights Watch report. Inmates sleep in hammocks or in corridors, with cockroaches and rats scuttling past. A study in Rio de Janeiro last year found 54 percent of those in pretrial detention may be innocent.
The conditions recall America’s prison system, overcrowded and rife with drug offenders. Brazil trails only the U.S., China and Russia in size of prison populations, according to Human Rights Watch. The homicide rate among the prison population — totaling half a million — reaches 150 for every 100,000, says Ilona Szabó of think tank Igarapé Institute. Additional terrifying stats: More than half of prisoners are 18 to 29 years old, many of whom are incarcerated for carrying small amounts of drugs. Those young men often remain in prison for five to 15 years. In rural locales, men and women sometimes share cells. Oh, and race: “It seems like they lock up more poor and Black people every time,” Valois says with a sigh. “Many are more afraid of someone who has stolen a cellphone than a politician who has stolen millions from the people.” (This in a nation embroiled in its own debates over the 2,000-plus people, many of them Black, killed by police in 2013, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum.)
As in the U.S., tough-on-crime talk wins votes.… In addition, Brazil is preparing for the international microscope that accompanies the Olympic Games.
When Valois appears at the gates of the exercise yard in the Anisio Jobim prison, a commotion — not a hostile one — erupts. Prisoners with case numbers and names scribbled on notepaper implore him to examine their cases. But Valois and team have 16,000 active cases, an impossible workload. He strides into the yard, as usual sans security or police guard. “I’m going to clean this mess up!” he shouts. The response is rapturous, if overly optimistic.
“The water gets cut off at 5 p.m,, the police smash everything in our cells and my case should have been judged in September,” complains Vitor De Barros, 23, sentenced to more than four years in Anisio Jobim for dealing drugs. “Judge Valois is the only one who helps us.” The prisoners speak of gangs forcing them to smuggle drugs and mobile phones, of the death threats they face if they don’t cooperate. Riots, which can start over unsatisfying food, often end fatally.
Valois, a jujitsu black belt who still trains, once participated in an (organized) fight in the prison, afterward showering with inmates in their cells. “I just try to treat them as humans,” he says. His involvement is unusual for a Brazilian judge — most restrict activities to cases in the courts. There are reasons for judges’ stoppering bleeding hearts. As in the U.S., tough-on-crime talk wins votes, despite progressive discourse to the contrary. In addition, Brazil is preparing for the international microscope that accompanies the Olympic Games. Plus, prisoners’ fondness for Valois has led to accusations of connections to Familia do Norte, Manaus’ main drug gang. A lawyer was caught on wiretap promising criminals that Valois would help them. Valois denied links to the lawyer or the gang and threatened to sue. An investigation is ongoing; he told OZY he is being persecuted by cops who don’t believe prisoner advocacy is possible without corruption.
The Manaus native has tried to expand his experience beyond his middle-class birthright. His first visit to a prison occurred when he was just out of law school and interning in Rio de Janeiro’s public defender’s office. Judges in Brazil are lifelong appointees; he received his appointment in 1998 and has climbed the ladder ever since. His political views could, however, inhibit a rise to positions such as security secretary of Manaus (his father’s old post).
Meanwhile, Brazil has increased its prison population by 74 percent between 2005 and 2012, according to the UNDP; the charitable explanation of the hard-on-crime stance is chalked up to a society fed up with violent crime and the increasing power and presence of drug gangs across Brazil. A “bullet bench” of mainly ex-military or law enforcement officers is busy whipping up popular hard-line laws lowering the age of criminal responsibility. Yet Valois drives a car that isn’t bulletproof, letting state-funded security men care for his two children instead. He is best seen as local cartoonist Jack Cartoon depicted him: with a gavel in one hand and a bunch of flowers in the other — a pacifist at heart.
- Beth McLoughlin, OZY Author Contact Beth McLoughlin