SALVADOR — There’s nothing quite like a barbecue with friends and beer, lots of it, to go down cool and easy with the sizzling steaks — and of course the photos to brag about the good time.
The scene would be nothing remarkable if it wasn’t for its location: Lemos Brito Penitentiary, in Salvador, one of Brazil’s five most dangerous prisons.
There are also other kinds of photographs that have emerged, of leaders of the prison's gangs. In one, a prisoner poses with a treadmill and an exercise bike, a privilege reserved for the most powerful inmates. Some of the cells even have blenders and electric fans.
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The photos were found on cell phones recently seized by penitentiary agents, and turned over to prosecutors. They expose how prison leaders in Lemos Brito enjoy prerogatives unthinkable in other jails around the country — and indeed unthinkable for the rest of the 1,315 inmates serving their sentence there, an overcrowded unit made for 771 people.
Worse still, prostitution is also widespread thanks to a system of trading and negotiations among prisoners, according to Reivon Sousa Pimentel, president of the union of penitentiary agents of the Bahia state (Sinspeb). Officially, only wives are allowed to visit their husbands, after putting their name on the register. To circumvent this rule, leaders purchase from underling prisoners the right to use their names. That way, with the name of whoever has conceded their privilege, prostitutes can walk in without difficulty, and once inside the prison “change” husbands to meet with their powerful clients.
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According to Sinspeb, prisoners also have free access to plenty of cold beverages, beer, chicken, beans and meat. The goods are sold by the prisoners themselves in makeshift stalls. “Trucks loaded with goods are allowed to enter the prison, and nobody says a thing,” explains Pimentel.
He believes higher authorities are happy to look the other way, seeing such practices as the price to pay to avoid the deadly rebellions that have taken place in other prisons around Brazil in the past. Officials of the Bahia state government refused to comment on the allegations.
More cells, higher walls
For more specific items that even visitors cannot smuggle in with them, there is another, simpler way: Accomplices outside the penitentiary get as close as they can from the jail, and just hurl carefully wrapped and addressed cell phones, cigars, and even drugs and weapons over the walls. Authorities have acknowledged the problem and said they were considering installing a steel net and even building higher walls.
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The state’s public prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into the general condition of the prison. The action could end up with a civil case and potentially lead to the closure of the facility. For some, the current situation is the consequence of several issues, from the prison’s fragile infrastructures and its overpopulation to the lack of government control in its management.
The Bahia government has insisted the state's penitentiary program is “in a much better situation than the others around the country,” and says there are plans to build two additional units to expand capacity.