The Americas

Gruesome videos, not officials, tell of Brazil prison deaths

  • In this Jan. 23, 2017 photo, Maria Jose de Souza reacts as she talks about her husband who died in a massacre inside Alcacuz prison in Natal, Brazil. A surviving inmate posted cellphone video of the carnage on WhatsApp, and Souza recognized a tattoo on the body of her beheaded husband. He had been in prison for three years for robbery and manslaughter, and was to be released in June. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

    In this Jan. 23, 2017 photo, Maria Jose de Souza reacts as she talks about her husband who died in a massacre inside Alcacuz prison in Natal, Brazil. A surviving inmate posted cellphone video of the carnage on WhatsApp, and Souza recognized a tattoo on the body of her beheaded husband. He had been in prison for three years for robbery and manslaughter, and was to be released in June. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this Jan. 20, 2017 file photo, a police car patrols outside the Alcacuz prison at dusk in Nizea Floresta, near Natal, Brazil. After the Jan. 14 Alcacuz uprising, which left 26 dead, it took 11 days for penitentiary officials to conduct a headcount to confirm who had died and who might have escaped. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

    In this Jan. 20, 2017 file photo, a police car patrols outside the Alcacuz prison at dusk in Nizea Floresta, near Natal, Brazil. After the Jan. 14 Alcacuz uprising, which left 26 dead, it took 11 days for penitentiary officials to conduct a headcount to confirm who had died and who might have escaped. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this Jan. 22, 2017 photo, the bodies of three inmates who were killed in the Alcacuz prison massacre lay outside the morgue in Natal, Brazil. For the families of the more than 130 men killed in Brazilian prisons since the beginning of the year, suffering has been compounded by the government responses that range from sluggish to crass, a product both of limited resources and the disdain many Brazilians feel for prisoners in a country plagued by violence. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

    In this Jan. 22, 2017 photo, the bodies of three inmates who were killed in the Alcacuz prison massacre lay outside the morgue in Natal, Brazil. For the families of the more than 130 men killed in Brazilian prisons since the beginning of the year, suffering has been compounded by the government responses that range from sluggish to crass, a product both of limited resources and the disdain many Brazilians feel for prisoners in a country plagued by violence. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)  (The Associated Press)

Just hours after armed conflict between two gangs erupted inside the Brazilian prison complex of Alcacuz, Maria Jose de Souza learned that her husband had died in the massacre.

But the news didn't come from any official. Instead, a surviving inmate posted cellphone video of the carnage on WhatsApp, and Souza recognized a tattoo on the body of her beheaded husband, 39-year-old Jonas Victor Nascimento. He had been in prison for three years for robbery and manslaughter, and was to be released in June.

"What image of my husband will I remember? A headless body?" Souza asked sobbing, adding that she had to bury him without his head. "Where is the government? Where is the state? They don't do anything."

For the families of the more than 130 men killed in Brazilian prisons since the beginning of the year, suffering has been compounded by government responses that range from sluggish to crass — a product both of limited resources and the disdain many Brazilians feel for prisoners in a country plagued by violence.

"There should be more killings," said Bruno Julio, Brazil's national youth secretary, during an interview last month with O Globo newspaper. "There should be one massacre per week." The statement caused a furor on social media, drawing both support and condemnation. The next day, Julio resigned.

Jose Melo, the governor of Amazonas state, where 57 prisoners were killed in a Manaus penitentiary on Jan. 1, said a few days later: "I can tell you there were no saints. There were rapists and killers there."

President Michel Temer didn't even mention the Manaus massacre in public for five days, then raised hackles when he called it a "tragic accident."

"There has been a contamination of public opinion" toward prisoners, said Marcelo Freixo, a legislator for the state of Rio de Janeiro and an advocate of prison reform. "There is more desire for revenge than for justice."

After the Jan. 14 Alcacuz slaying, which left 26 dead, it took 11 days for penitentiary officials to conduct a headcount to confirm who had died and who might have escaped.

Dozens of families spent days camping outside the prison on mattresses, anxiously awaiting news. Most of the updates came from prisoners themselves, communicating via cellphones. Families complain authorities have done nothing to help.

"They are playing with lives," said Elaine Silva, whose husband, jailed for drunk driving, survived the rebellion with an injured knee.

After the bloodshed in Manaus, Luiz Sagando said it took more than a week to learn that his nephew, Macedo Fineira, had survived. Fineira, 19, has been locked up for 16 months in connection with two murders. However, he has not been tried — an estimated 40 percent of prisoners in Brazil have not been convicted — and the family believes he is innocent.

"We are very worried that he could be killed. There are no assurances in prison," said Sagando. "We are trying to get him out but we don't have money for a lawyer."

In response to the complaints of families, the state office in charge of penitentiary affairs told The Associated Press it was helping families, but declined to offer specifics.

Authorities are legally responsible for prisoners, from their personal safety to health care, said Julita Lemgruber who was head of Rio de Janeiro's state prison system between 1991 and 1994. In reality, she said, those guarantees "don't go beyond the paper they are written on," adding that endemic racism is a factor.

A 2014 Ministry of Justice report found that 62 percent of prisoners were black or mixed race, a disproportionate representation given that only 54 percent of Brazilians identify as such.

There have been some signs of progress. Brazil's Supreme Court ruled last year that the state should compensate the families of prisoners who die in prison. Still, the combination of poverty of many such families and Brazil's crushing bureaucracy raises questions about how realistic getting compensation will be.

Some people, such as Sandriely Costa, couldn't apply even if they had the means. Costa was in a relationship but not married to Alcacuz prisoner Felipe de Oliveira, a convicted robber who was killed during the massacre.

Costa said Oliveira had a gunshot wound in his stomach and had been decapitated. Without help from authorities, Oliveira had Costa buried.

"Nobody deserves a death like that," said Costa, adding that throughout the ordeal authorities "treated us like dogs."

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Brito reported from Natal. Prengaman reported from Rio de Janeiro.

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