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Brazil Slayings Protest Prison Conditions : 16 Killed by Cell Mates; Names Drawn for ‘Execution by Lottery’

Times Staff Writer

Amid revelations of the brutal conditions in Brazil’s overcrowded prisons, the face of a convict who admits to executing three fellow prisoners is appearing on newspaper front pages and magazine covers here.

Sixteen prisoners have been killed by cell mates since April in jails in Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second-most populous state. The convicts say the slayings are a form of protest to draw attention to the appalling conditions in which they live.

“They kill because they live like animals,” said Antonio Lara Resende, director of the penal system in Minas Gerais.

The main center for the prisoner protest is Lagoinha Prison in Belo Horizonte, the state capital, where up to 300 prisoners are held in pens designed for no more than 40. They get out of the pen once a month, for a bath, and must take turns sleeping on damp cement floors in a permanent state of semi-darkness.

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Each group of prisoners has a de facto chief known as “the sheriff,” and one of these sheriffs is the sinister figure now receiving wide attention in Brazilian newspapers and national magazines.

He is 30-year-old Severino Ferreira de Lima, serving a 49-year sentence for armed robbery and homicide. He is also the admitted killer of the three other convicts.

Ferreira and other hardened criminals devised a plan of execution by lottery. They put slips of paper, on which were written the names of several weaker prisoners, into a container and one was drawn out. The prisoner whose name was drawn was killed.

“I waited for him to go to sleep and then I climbed up on a ledge,” Ferreira told local reporters in describing his first killing of a fellow prisoner. “I landed with both feet on his stomach. He was stunned. Then we strangled him with a cloth cord with knots.”

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Prison riots in the main jail in Sao Paulo two months ago led to the death of at least 40 prisoners when the four-square-block prison compound caught fire from burning mattresses. Police quelled the riot with intense gunfire.

Other riots and jailbreaks in prisons in Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and other states have left a steady toll of prison deaths.

Since the jail-cell killings started, prison authorities in Minas Gerais have put Ferreira and several other ringleaders in solitary confinement. But the jails remain as overcrowded as before. The state authorities say they have no money for new facilities and no new prison has been built in the state for 20 years.

Because of the shortage of prison space, young suspects, even before their trials are held, are often placed in the same detention facilities with convicts. Homosexual rape in the jails is common.

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