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Massive jailbreaks in Mexico. Prison riots in Venezuela, and fires in Honduras. Latin America's prisons are overcrowded, out of control and ready to burst. In this in-depth series, GlobalPost goes inside some of the Americas' most violent prisons to investigate a correctional system that has gone horribly wrong.


Brazil: Rio shuts makeshift police-run jails

With official prisons overloaded, police turned anything from old buses to horse stables into detention centers. Now Rio de Janeiro is cracking down.

SAO GONÇALO, Brazil — On a dank commercial street in this working-class suburb of Rio de Janeiro, women and babies line up with tupperwares of beans and grocery bags with crackers in front of what used to be a horse stable. Hundreds of men accused of drug trafficking, murder, robbery, sexual assault or paramilitary activity are waiting for them inside.

It’s as routine as it is illegal: These ad hoc police-run jails were never meant to exist. 

With official prisons overflowing, police across Brazil for decades have turned to whatever structure they could find — in some cases old buses and shipping containers — to house their detainees. But what was meant to be a temporary holding pen became years-long imprisonment for suspects waiting for a trial.

These jails operate with no budget or administration. Detainees’ family members bring them food and other necessities. Some privileged prisoners are chosen to run the jail under the watch of a few policemen. Corruption has flourished.

“We found a case of a boy who had robbed codfish. We found a case of a transvestite who threw a rock at a car because someone had called him ‘fag,’” says Pastor Antônio Carlos Costa, president of the protest group Rio de Paz. The group, one of Rio’s leading human rights organizations, has lobbied hard to get the jails closed and has routinely brought medical supplies to prisoners.

Read more: Packed prisons (INTERACTIVE)

“We found people staying there for three years because they didn’t have lawyers. They didn’t have any information on their judicial processes.”

Human rights groups applauded as Rio de Janeiro became the first Brazilian state to fully shut down these illegal holding pens last month, transferring the last of about 4,000 prisoners out of the police stations.

But where will they go? Some critics are warning that many of the government’s promised custodial houses have yet to be constructed, and the rest of the prisons are bursting with inmates.

The closures are a sight to see. On a recent Saturday, family members here in Sao Gonçalo were startled to see a moving truck pull up to the dilapidated yellow gate of the ad-hoc holding center with a sign reading “Citizens Jail.”

Some prisoners in Bermuda shorts heaved air conditioners, blenders and refrigerators out of the trashed jail into the truck. They are called the “faixina,” a privileged group that enjoys cushier cell rooms in exchange for carrying out cleanup and maintenance duties.

The other sweaty, shirtless inmates from what’s called the “tranca,” the locked cells for the rest of the prisoners, climbed handcuffed into an armored van behind them.

Read more: In-depth series on Latin America's prison problems

Brazil’s incarceration rate — now at 260 per 100,000 residents — has tripled over the past 15 years. That rate ranks in the middle of Latin America, higher than that of Venezuela and Argentina, but lower than that of Chile or El Salvador. But the sheer size of Brazil means its prison population dwarfs that of any other Latin American country. At half a million inmates, its prison population is six times that of Colombia, the next largest in Latin America. It has the fourth largest incarcerated population worldwide.

Nearly half of Brazil’s inmates are awaiting trial, according to research by a number of organizations including Human Rights Watch.

In 1999, a Rio de Janeiro governor decreed that pre-trial detainees should be kept in spacious custodial houses. But Rio has not built them fast enough to hold the inmates.

The horse stable turned jail in Sao Gonçalo had a maximum capacity of 400 but routinely had 800. Some prisoners say they slept standing up tied to the walls.

But the quality of the treatment of inmates varied greatly.