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World & Nation

Brazilian officials say they knew prison clash was ‘imminent’

Antonia Alves grieves as she is comforted by relatives during the burial of her son Jairo Alves Figu
Antonia Alves grieves as she is comforted by relatives during the burial of her son Jairo Alves Figueiredo, an inmate who was killed in the recent prison riots, at a cemetery in Manaus, Brazil, on May 30, 2019.
(Andre Penner / Associated Press)

Brazilian families on Thursday buried victims of prison riots that left 55 inmates dead, as authorities confirmed they had received warnings of an “imminent confrontation” days before clashes began in the northern state of Amazonas.

Dozens of relatives could be seen grieving, crying and sometimes fainting at a cemetery in the state capital, Manaus, as coffins were lowered into the rust-colored earth.

“He really wanted to come out [of prison], turn his life around,” said a tearful Tiara, whose ex-husband was killed in the violence. She declined to share her last name out of fear of reprisal.

The riots have led to renewed calls for better prisons, providing another challenge to the administration of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, which has pledged to clean up Brazil’s festering jails as part of a broader crime-fighting agenda.

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Adding to the anger and frustration, state prison authorities said they implemented a contingency plan on May 23, transferring some prisoners who appeared to be at risk at the Men’s Provisional Detention Center 1 in Manaus to another facility. Still, five inmates were killed in that prison Monday.

“There’s no way you can identify the ideal moment or exact moment when any event will happen,” said state prison secretary Vinicius Almeida on Wednesday. “Intelligence data is not a crystal ball.”

The Rev. Joao Poli, who has been visiting inmates inside the state’s prisons for nearly a decade, said the government’s lack of consideration for family members reflected the way prisoners are treated inside the penitentiaries.

“The exploitation of prisoners is dramatic,” said Poli, an Italian native.

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The priest also criticized privatizations in the Amazonas prison system.

All four prisons where the killings took place Sunday and Monday were run under a public-private partnership with the Brazilian company Umanizzare, according to the state prison secretary.

Umanizzare said the state remains responsible for security inside the facilities and the company is in charge of nearly everything else, from food to maintenance, medical attention and utilities.

Severe overcrowding remains a key issue.

“More prisoners, more money,” Poli said, noting that he once saw more than 30 people packed into a cell with eight mattresses at a prison in a remote area of Amazonas state.

In many of Brazil’s prisons, badly outnumbered guards struggle to retain power over an ever-growing population of inmates who often run criminal schemes from behind bars.

The country’s penitentiary system has an official capacity of 368,000, but roughly double that number — 726,000 — are incarcerated, according to official data from 2016. In Amazonas state, 11,390 inmates occupy prisons built to hold 2,354.

“It is absolutely necessary to build new prisons,” said Claudio Lamachia, who was chairman of Brazil’s bar association until the end of last year. “It’s a way of investing in public security.”

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Lamachia, who has regularly visited prisons across Brazil, said it is not uncommon for prisoners to spend several days in police cars waiting for space to become available.

“Prisons today are a time bomb. Tragedies waiting to happen,” the lawyer said.

In January 2017, more than 120 inmates died when the First Capital Command gang clashed with the rival Family of the North gang over control of drug-trafficking routes in northern states. The violence lasted several weeks, spreading to various states.

The Anisio Jobim Prison Complex in Manaus was also the scene of gruesome fighting two years ago that left 56 prisoners dead, many with their heads cut off or their hearts and intestines ripped out. Fifteen inmates died in that same prison on Sunday.

Public security experts say that until Brazil improves its prisons, it will struggle to fully regain control of inmates, many of whom depend on prison gangs for food, money or survival.

Lamachia said that on one of his prison visits, guards were only allowed into cellblocks by inmates to deliver food, which would then be distributed by the gangs.


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