In a prison system which allows inmates to "marry" transvestite cellmates, appear on TV and record CDs, the words of James Cavallaro, of the Human rights group Global Justice, surprise nobody: "Brazil differs from other countries in that here there is a very different degree of control by the prisoners themselves. The only way to guarantee security is to let prisoners make their own rules." These rules led to the most massive riot in Brazil's prison system, with an initial revolt at Carandiru prison, the largest in South America, spreading to other prisons across the state of Sao Paulo. Only today was the problem diffused by the police, with the release of 7,000 hostages and a surrender by the rioting 10,500 prisoners. Behind the initial riot is reported to be the transfer of five leaders of the First Command of the Capital, an association of criminals which claims to control criminal activity inside and outside the state of Sao Paulo's prisons. This organisation provoked the riots, first in Carandiru and then in other prisons. The result was 15 people dead and eight wounded, including a four-year-old boy. This is light when compared with the human price paid at the same Carandiru prison in 1992: 111 prisoners were killed by the police. It should be pointed out that this prison had three times more inmates than it was designed for. The result is a natural selection process by human beings placed under unnatural pressures. It is reported that as soon as prisoners enter Carandiru, they are forced to pay rent for the cells they live in, either by paying or by granting favours. Richer prisoners can buy almost anything they want: it is common practice to "marry" a transvestite prisoner and to live together as "husband and wife" in a cell, and practically anything is available for those who have the influence to obtain it: fridges, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs even. Father Armando Tambelli , of Sao Paulo Chaplaincy, said that 80% of prisoners take drugs. It is reported that in recent years, violence has decreased in this jail due to the practice of allowing "conjugal visits", where wives can visit their husbands in their cells. With up to 15 people in a cell, “bedrooms" are created by prisoners hanging up sheets to create a minimum of privacy while the act is performed. One wonders whether the "other wife" is allowed to watch. Rap bands have also sprung up in this prison. Favoured by the authorities for being a means to channel aggression, the bands are allowed out of the prison to sign recording contracts and perform on TV, provided that they are back inside by 10 p.m. and that they are handcuffed to a police officer while they are outside. The fact that these riots happened during the family visiting day on Sunday shows that something is seriously wrong. Overcrowded prisons is not only a Brazilian problem, it is a problem of justice systems around the world. Such conditions favour nobody, much least, in the long term, the society outside the prisons which claims to have been a victim of the inmates inside. Rather than protecting itself against the prisoners, society is in this way providing "crime schools" which give free lessons in criminal activity and fabricate culture dishes for diseases such as TB and AIDS to be later disseminated in society at large, our correspondent Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey reports from Lisbon.

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