Brazilian prisons – what is up there?

Brazilian prisons – what is up there?

The last days had seen a number of bad news from Brazilian prisons. I‘ve been asked, what‘s up in Brazilian prisons, and if I could write a few words about it. It‘s a frustrating topic, but here we go.

Some days ago news came from the very north of Brazil. In a prison in Boa Vista – capital of the state Roraima – 18 inmates were killed cruesome and later more than 100 visitors, most of them women, had been taken as hostages before being freed again by special forces of the Police. It was only a short note that in another prison on Porto Velho in the state of Rondônia eight inmates were also killed during a revolt.

Two days ago came more bad news from the state of São Paulo. Some buildings of the hospital prison in Franco da Rocha had been set on fire during a revolt, the neighboring state park also caught fire and in the chaos 55 inmates fled the prison – of which 50 have already been captured again.

So what is up in Brazilian prisons? To understand this, you have to let go all your ideas of a „normal“ prison. Brazil has a crazily high number of prisoners – at the moment more than 622.000  – while the prisons were built for a lot less inmates. Brazilian prisons are by many considered hell and most “normal“ Brazilians are seriously scared to spend a night in one. Hygiene is said to be catastrophic, rooms are massively overcrowded and prisons in general do not aim at reintegrating inmates into society but at scaring everybody else off.

Some people claim that the Brazilian government has already given up on prisons. While there are supposedly progressive approaches like reducing an inmates sentence by some days for every book he or she reads, this is an exception. Most prisons are governed by corruption and violence, many times by one of the two big organized crime gangs, Comando Vermelho (CV) or Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC). The wars between these organizations are horribly violent, inside and outside of the prisons. Only last week, for example, busses were burned down in Maceió, capital of the northeastern state of Alagoas, a well-known way of leading their disputes and wars.

Overcrowded, corruption, violence, drugs. The worst about these news is that these problems are all but new, they are known for decades. Carandiru has become kind of a synonym for this – the former prison in the city of São Paulo was infamous for violence gang crime, drugs, corruption and brutality by prison guards. 1992 happened a revolt in this giant prison, which was brutally crushed by special police forces – more than 100 inmates died, many by police violence. The massacre of Carandiru was turned into a movie and it describes, what the problems of Brazilian prisons are – back then and today.


Eine deutsche Version dieses Artikels gibt es auf
Foto by Carol Garcia / AGECOM via flickr

Chico Xavier or this awkward moment when you realize that you don‘t know anything about Brazil

Chico Xavier or this awkward moment when you realize that you don‘t know anything about Brazil

„Brazil is not for Beginners“ people like to say when they realize that living in this beautiful country can sometimes be painfully complicated. Brazil is a giant and diverse and rich and beautiful and incredibly unequal country, and even after having lived and worked in Brazil for 2,5 years I had to find out that there are big and important aspects of life that I was still unaware of. Let’s take religion for example.

Brazilians do not get tired to point out that Brazil is one of the most important catholic countries on this planet. With all the negative side-effects like criminalizing abortion etc. But there are also the very influential Evangelic churches who seem to have a great influence politics and run strange and depressing tv channels. But there is also Umbanda – what I would like to call the most Brazilian religion, because it is a quite unique mixture of Catholicism and Spiritualism – and Candomblé – a religion derived from Africa worshipping different deities calles orixás. Once when I was in Salvador de Bahía I took the chance to witness a Candomblé ritual and it was very impressive. Of course there is still more in Brazil, for example Santo Daime, a syncretic religion from the Amazona region whose believers ritualistic drink a “holy beverage” with psychoactive ingredients to connect to their deities. This was about my “religious map” of Brazil. But I was wrong.

It all started when a student of mine wanted to talk about Allen Kardec, the French founder of Spiritualism. I had to admit that I had not heard of Allen Kardec before and that I was only vaguely familiar with Spiritualism. I soon found out that spiritualism is quite popular in Brazil, actually it seems to be one of the countries with most active spiritualists and many (many!) books about that topic. But this still was not my revelation, this happened when another student told me about Chico Xavier. Who? Yes, that was my reaction. He was a Brazilian medium, practitioner of spiritualism and has written more than 450 books in his life which sold an estimated 50 million copies. The revenue generated by these books was channeled into charity work. Impressive. Since I had never heard about this guy, I asked more Brazilian friends, if they knew this guy. The typical reaction was like this: “Yes of course, he is as famous as Jesus in Brazil.” I guess I must’ve missed out on the Brazilian Jesus then.

Chico Xavier (1910-2002) was a spiritualist medium and philanthropist and he was named “The Greatest Brazilian of all time” by a popular TV show in 2012. In the 1970s he could be seen on one of Brazilian TV in a popular interview program which made him even more popular. The 400+ books he wrote were psychographies – messages from spirits to which he connected as a medium – and they covered topics from science to literature and personal letters from deceased people to their loved ones. Spiritualism claims that humans are embodiments of immortal spirits and that spirits can influence the physical world through a medium.

And if this does not seem crazy (and I mean this in the most positive way possible) and interesting enough, most conversations with my Brazilian friends soon took a direction where he or she admitted freely: “my whole family believes in spiritism” or “my uncle is a medium and talks to spirits” or even “yes I’ve seen a medium frequently when I was younger”.

Sounds interesting? I am curious that in Brazil people did never talk to me about this freely, which I guess has something to do with me being the “rational German” (which I am not, at least I like to think that) or since Spiritualism is still a kind of taboo topic for many, because of the strong influence of the Christian Churches. But now I am curious and I want to find out more about it. And it is one thing I love about Brazil: it’s always good for a surprise and you can mix things in Brazil, that you couldn’t mix anywhere else. I am talking of course about the people who are somehow Christian and at the same time Spiritualists. But this is also true in other aspects. Have you every tried the very German schnapps Steinhäger with Brazilian fruits like star fruit or passion fruit to make a Caipirinha? Yes, this is a quite popular thing in Brazil. But it is also a different topic.


Correction: An earlier version of  this post accidently featured this photo of Chico Mendes and has since been removed (that’s how little I know about Brazil…. hahahaha).

Rio de Janeiro – Home of hate and fear

Rio de Janeiro – Home of hate and fear

While the Paralympics are happening in Rio de Janeiro and after the city tried to use the Olympics to portray itself in a good light, it should not be forgotten, that for these Olympics thousands of people had to be relocated or were forcefully moved out of their homes while the favelas were not “pacified” as promised, but continue to be not only home for thousands of people but also to gang violence and injustice. (The Guardian has a good look into this topic.)

But there is one more ugly mark on this otherwise beautiful city: the “most misogynistic, hateful official in the democratic world” Jair Bolsonaro. (Quote by TheIntercept who have also just published a short article about this diabolic and hateful family.) A man who is not only incredibly popular among Brazil’s ultra-right, claims to be evangelic while at the same time openly passing his hatred as seen for example when he was praising the General overseeing Dilma’s torture during her impeachment trail.

The beautiful city? The hateful city.

What’s up lately in Brazil and the US?

The German shooting star of “a different” political journalism Tilo Jung went to Brazil with his interview series “young&naive” and he talked to Glenn Greenwald about the current situation in Brazil and the US. As always Greenwald’s leftish view and reasoning sheds a lot of light. My favorite quote about Trump: “he is genuinely emotionally instable” and “his voters want to burn down the political system.” Yes, that makes a lot of sense. “Hillary Clinton is a sociopathic and evil person who’s going to kill huge amounts of innocent people for her own political gains.” Looking at it like this, the situation in Brazil doesn’t seem that bad…