Following the release of a highly graphic video depicting the bodies of three decapitated inmates on display in a prison yard after a December riot in a Maranhão state penal facility -- published on the website of Brazil’s Folha de São Paulo -- the footage has sparked something of a national debate over prison conditions, both in Maranhão and nationwide.
Violence has recently spread from prisons to the streets of Maranhão capital São Luis, where authorities say street gangs orchestrated attacks on buses and police stations last week in response to a crackdown in Pedrinhas prison, the same facility where the video was recorded. Some 60 inmates were killed there in 2013.
On Wednesday, the mounting violence led the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to release a statement expressing concern over the “dire state of prisons in Brazil” and calling on authorities to restore order in Pedrinhas.
Local groups have also called on federal authorities to open an investigation into allegations of human rights abuses in the prison. In a letter sent to Brazilian Attorney General Rodrigo Janot on Tuesday, human rights NGOs Conectas, Justiça Global and the Maranhão Society of Human Rights argued that federal intervention would “enable a more speedy and independent investigation” of conditions in Pedrinhas. The organizations also noted that, ever since the state government ordered military police to take over the facility two weeks ago, there has been little information available about the state of affairs at the prison.
There is an element of local politics to the way the prison violence has gained a national profile as well. As Simon Romero writes for the New York Times, Maranhão is governed by Roseana Sarney, a member of the powerful Sarney family which has dominated politics in the state for decades. Sarney has taken to a state newspaper owned by her family to blame the violence on institutional problems with the Brazilian legal system and on resistance to reforms from prison guards. Romero notes that the video was leaked to Folha by members of the union of penitentiary workers, perhaps in a bid to lash out at Sarney’s attempts to assume control of the Pedrinhas facility.
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