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.
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.
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.
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.
Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.
PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?
In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.
This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.
Addictions to sex and social media
Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'
Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.
No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.
Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image
According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.
Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.
Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.
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