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By Drauzio Varella

Simon & Shuster, $37.00

The aim of all prisons is roughly the same--to lock criminals up for a certain period or indefinitely in order to punish them for their crimes and simultaneously prevent them from harming society. However, some prisons, notably Scandinavian and New Zealand prisons give their inmates adequate food, lighting, ventilation and toilet facilities eliciting indignation in some quarters that the prisoners are being cossetted. The counter argument is that such prisons can work towards rehabilitating prisoners enabling them to lead law abiding lives when they are released.


Such lofty aims are not on the agenda of Carandiru, the largest and most notorious prison in Latin America, situated in Sao Paulo, its largest city. At maximum capacity, it houses 9000 prisoners, three times what it was designed to hold when it was first built in the 1950s. The prison is made up of a number of pavilions of varying degree of squalor, over crowding, and degradation. Worst of all is solitary confinement, which is served in darkness. Imagine spending months at a time in such a condition! In many ways, this prison reminded me of Dante's Hell with rapists and grasses (informers) being at the bottom. Machismo justice is administered inside by prisoners and rapists may well be stabbed to death by up to 30 men. They have just one knife which is handed around.

Conditions border on the bizarre. For instance, breakfast is served at five o'clock, lunch at 9am and dinner at 2pm. The food is described as inedible so men find ways to obtain alternative food, some provided by visitors. Hunger then is, so to speak, part of the punishment. As in all prisons, there is a thriving black market with cigarettes being the main currency. Under the medieval conditions all manner of diseases thrive, the two most prominent and deadly being TB and AIDS. In prisons, the cause of the spread of AIDs is sharing dirty needles. In Carandiru, cocaine was the injected drug of choice until "rock" or what we call P, came along. Varella says it is the most addictive drug--save for nicotine--and the high that it gives is shorter every time you use it. In a curious way, this diminishing high reinforces addiction.

The minority group of Transvestites--surprisingly well treated by the aggressively masculine prisoners--have a 78 per cent rate of AIDS. Dr Varella, who is in my view, a secular saint, does the best he can. Sometimes prisoners have multiple diseases, sometimes they fake one to obtain morphine. Though the doctor has of course great respect, things can go wrong at any time. In pavilion Nine, it is so overcrowded that prisoners sleep toe to head, and in some cases must stand to allow those prone to get some sleep. As is well known sleep deprivation is bad for the nerves and can only serve to exacerbate men who already have a record of violence.

Perhaps the most enlightened aspect of this hell hole is the allowance of intimacy visits by women. Every weekend thousands of women--sisters, daughters, mothers, girlfriends, wives turn up with food parcels and, where appropriate, intimacy is allowed. This provides a certain safety valve for an institution that is a powder keg ready to explode at any time. Finally, when it did in 1992, the authorities called in heavy reinforcements and hundreds of prisoners were shot without mercy or negotiation.

The concluding chapters of the harrowing but humane account are devoted to cameo sketches of individual prisoners. There seems no doubt everyone is guilty of felony but in some cases it's a clear case of self defence or in machismo-driven Latin America, a matter of male honour. To prevent too much internal murder, doomed prisoners are shoved in the Dungeon for their own safety. Varella's is objective and non judgmental. Curiously, in some cases, you find yourself respecting and even liking these crims. Whatever crimes they have committed. Varella notes, there is nothing like a mother's love. One mother who visits her son, guilty of several brutal murders, says she remembers him as a sweet smiling happy boy. Perhaps, so I would to think, there is an aspect of Christlike love in such an attitude, where the seemingly unforgivable is forgiven.
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Author:Morrissey, Michael
Publication:Investigate HIS
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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