Fighting the State to Survive
By Diorgeres de Assis Victorio
I'm a prison guard. I witness firsthand the COVID-19 pandemic challenges in the Brazilian prison system. This experience sharpened my interest in studying the effect of Covid-19 in prisons, given the difficulty faced by scientists in accessing it in order to conduct research. The challenges are not simple: Brazil has the third largest prison population in the world.
These more than 24 years immersed in prison research, living it day after day—sometimes during the day, sometimes at night—made me learn much from its inhabitants.
My research showed that the situation of the Covid-19 pandemic in the Brazilian prison system is very serious. Cases of underreporting are occurring, which remind me of the dialogues I had with prisoners who survived the Carandiru Massacre in 1992, in which military police invaded a penitentiary after a prison riot, and informed me that they helped put the bodies of dead inside the garbage trucks so that the official number of dead presented would be lower.
That kind of research is nothing new to me. In the 1990s, I studied the problem of AIDS and how the First Command of the Capital—a criminal organization that was born in prison on August 31, 1993—would treat this situation, since this criminal organization is one of my lines of research. Besides being a prison security agent in the state of São Paulo since 1994, I have been researching penitentiaries for more than 24 years.
In the 1990s it was common for inmates to receive visits from prostitutes. There was a prostitution scheme in prison, involving such women. He took advantage of this period. As time went by, new hookers appeared during inmates’ visitation periods and so the spread of AIDS occurred.
I was able to verify that the inmate I had been observing since his entry, who previously did not even receive visits from his relatives, was now a “boieiro” (the one who distributes food to prisoners).
Years passed and now he was getting a visit.
There was one person who presented herself in the penitentiary as his wife, coming to visit him with that alleged status.
In less than a year I could see that AIDS was consuming him, and his partner was no longer visiting him. That inmate, who lived in the boieiros cell, could no longer work with food delivery because of having AIDS and would have to look for another place to live. I observed communication with libras (Brazilian Sign Language). The Crime wanted to assign him to one of the cells in the infirmary wing, but he wanted to return to the pavilion where he lived when he entered the penitentiary, because he knew that in the infirmary he would see naked prisoners, and prisoners who defecate and urinate on their clothes, who should be in a psychiatric hospital, but who are instead in a maximum security penitentiary, worsening their mental problems. He did not want to see this and also knew that if he was allowed to sunbathe with the prison population, he could participate in the samba circle with the inmates of the “Pessoal do Samba/Samba Guys, ”who live in his old pavilion. He could also watch the football games in the cells, which remain open throughout the inmates' visit. He could also have access to the prostitutes of the “Jail Book,” as other inmates even told me during the conversations I had with them inside the cells, a book tht provided them with photos, ages and other information about each prostitute available to attend the inmates.
He, at least in theory, would have access to drugs, as well as “Maria Louca/Crazy Maria” (brandy made by inmates in jail with rice and oranges, among other ingredients). However, intestinal bleeding and other symptoms resulting from HIV caused him to be labeled as posing a danger, especially for the relatives of visitors, since it was not known at the time how HIV/AIDS was transmitted.
Forbidden from access to the sun, he decided one day (in possession of a stiletto, made from a piece of glass from his cell’s stained glass window) to use the prison guard as a bargaining chip to demand his transfer to another prison unit. And he did it! But in prison we knew things and I was informed that he would have gone to a unit, but instead he went to the penitentiary hospital, where he died, due to the aggravation of his condition.
The state I live in has the largest prison population in Brazil, and the first case of Covid-19 in São Paulo was diagnosed in an employee of the Hospital Center of the prison system. This reminded me that more than twenty years ago, a health unit, also from the São Paulo prison system, would have supported another pandemic, that of HIV. Inmates in prison are now not dying from AIDS; the current plague is Covid-19, but I see many of the same problems.
To conduct this research on Covid-19, I began by sharing the research method through WhatsApp with the president of the union SIFUSPESP, one of the unions of penitentiary security agents and other employees of the Secretariat of Penitentiary Administration of São Paulo (SAP). He was ready to help me.
He immediately appointed professionals from his own trade union to help me, but unfortunately they did not cooperate.
What would be a research facilitator became a difficulty, including the documentary part. I could access the materials through internet searches, union websites and other sites, where I found court decisions, academic articles and other material.
I found it difficult to research the subject I proposed to write, bearing in mind that visitors, prisoners and also employees of the prison system in São Paulo, fear being punished if someone find out that they are whistleblowers, since— like sex offenders—they are targets of hate in prison.
The Union of Employees of the Penitentiary System of the State of São Paulo (SIFUSPESP), sent a document to the Secretariat of Penitentiary Administration of the State of São Paulo, to the Court of Justice of São Paulo. The court did not suspend prison visits, but recognized the right of pregnant employees to stay away from prisons, and also ruled that the state must guarantee the supply of equipment for individual and collective protection, under penalty of one hundred thousand reais per day, if not provided within five days. Even before the court decision, the Third Generation of the First Command of the Capital (PCC), created after the Carandiru massacre, ordered that prisoner visits be suspended to try to prevent thousands of prisoner deaths.
Subsequently, the São Paulo State Penitentiary Agents Union (SINDASP-SP) filed a lawsuit to prevent prison visits because of Covid-19, and an injunction was granted. The struggle continues. The guards' union asked the courts for the suspension of transfers from the capital to the prison units belonging to the group of the Coordination of Prison Units of the central region of the State (there are seven Coordination Offices), as well as any transfer of prisoners between units subordinated to the Coordination Office.
There's a lot to worry about in the prison system. The National Council of Justice (CNJ) provides a weekly follow-up of Covid-19 cases on its website. This group aims to improve the work of the Brazilian judicial system, with the objective of promoting the development and coordination of programs that prioritize areas of human rights. On August 17, the group had reported 24,200 confirmed cases of Covid-19, an increase of 61,7% in the last thirty days and 7.7% in the last week. Of those cases, 165 deaths were registered, an increase of 26.9% in the last thirty days and an increase of 2.5% in the last week). In prisons, there are 17,057 confirmed cases and 90 recorded deaths, and in the case of prison guards, there are 7,143 confirmed cases with 75 recorded deaths. SIFUSPESP received several complaints that SAP was not complying with the judicial decision, including the supply of personal protection equipment. Another example: in Penitentiary I in Itirapina, three employees and 19 prisoners with Covid-19 are not isolated from the others, and the unit still receives prisoners from other units. The City Hall of Itirapina, for months, omitted information about the infected prisoners.
Some penitentiary employees in the State of São Paulo refuse to wear masks in the pavilions, and some simply do not have masks, since SAP does not provide them.
I went to investigate the outside area of the prison unit where I work, so that I could see with my own eyes if the wheels and/or vehicles entering the prison unit were clean, how the entrance of materials would work to make the incarceration machine work. The reality is sad, servants not wearing masks already at the entrance of the prison unit, where we serve people who visited or are requesting information in the prison unit. I looked for a place with better visibility, and from there I could see that people without masks, near a truck, were preparing to unload it. From there I could see the materials entering the prison unit in the same way as they had before the onset of Covid-19.
The pictures show us people whose noses and mouths weren't covered. Among them, one person from the semi-open, two prison guards near the penitentiary kennel, and two other people who were in the truck.
The rate of positive cases, as well as deaths of prison guards and inmates, is still low, considering that the state is not fulfilling the basic duties it should obey to avoid the proliferation of Covid-19.
In the 1990s, I saw inmates having to leave the pavilions several times because of AIDS.They were accompanied by PCC members who requested dignified treatment for sick prisoners, claiming that this is the law, and that it is the inmate's right to have their health taken care of by the state.
The prison units did not have clinics or medications to care for inmates who had contracted such diseases. Some hung themselves in their cells; others were transferred to other pavilions and tried to hide their illness from fellow prisoners. This is very difficult to do and they often ended up being transferred to the infirmary.
In the infirmary, inmates without AIDS demanded the exit of AIDS patients, fearing that they and their visitors would contract the disease.
The prison administration reported that AIDS patients belonged to the infirmary. At the time, I saw inmates with AIDS having to ask for personal insurance protection (prison insurance), since other prisoners threatened them with death. They were afraid to say who the threats came from, because if they did, they would be sentenced to death; there is no pardon for the whistleblowers in prison. Now the situation is in danger of repeating itself. SAP has created internal standards to help prevent the coronavirus contagion. The measure includes allowing employees who are 60 or older, or who can prove that they have certain pre-existing medical conditions, to apply for vacation or license, as of March 26, 2020.
However, I have seen that some employees are unwilling to claim these rights as they fear being transferred to a unit away from their families in return. They also fear losing positions of trust and perhaps being labeled as “bad employees.”
The Socialism and Freedom Party (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade - PSOL) has filed a suit with the Supreme Court to prevent the proliferation of the Covid-19 pandemic in the Brazilian prison system. Later, the Brazilian Institute of Criminal Sciences (IBCCRIM) asked the Supreme Court to qualify as a friend of the court in support of the PSOL process.
I was not surprised by the reactions of the state, the CCP and institutes such as trade unions. What I expected to find at the beginning of the research became a reality at the end of the investigation, including the court decisions.
As a prison guard, this experience was very enriching for my academic life.
I worked in the forum, where I was able to read the prisoners' files and later I was the investigative authority in a prison, a kind of policeman who checks the inmates' and staff's irregularities and, with this, I was able to access and study, in a more in-depth way, the subject that is my line of research: prisons and penitentiary criminology.
I have not seen the same fear of prisoners in relation to Covid-19, as I saw at the time of AIDS in the 1990s, because at that time they often refused to enter their cells, demanding their rights. This is no longer happening.
I believe that one of the reasons is that there are no face-to-face visits and, therefore, there is no fear of the spread of Covid-19 to or from their visitors.
I also conclude that, once again, the PCC abolishes the state's obligation with regard to the cases of this new pandemic that plagues the São Paulo prison system, and that undoubtedly, if it were not for the great interference of the same (and other institutions), the number of deaths would be much higher, due to the high agglomeration of inmates, the staggering numbers of the prison population, and people who do not wear or improperly use the masks. We are left to the irresponsibility of the government.
I hope more people become interested in prison studies. In Brazil, there is no room for a chair in Penitentiary Criminology, many academic institutions do not even include criminology as a field. There is a very important academic void to be covered as to prison studies.
To the end of Prison Necropolitics.
Diorgeres de Assis Victorio is a prison security officer in Brazil and a student of the Intensive Course valid for the Doctorate/University of Buenos Aires; post-graduation at the IDPEE/University of Coimbra. He dedicates this article to his cousin, Tiago de Assis Aires Coelho, who died of Covid-19 while the author was writing about Covid-19 in the prison systems. E-mail: email@example.com