World

Families bury prison riot victims, as Brazil admits it knew clash was 'imminent'

Families were burying victims of several prison riots that killed 55 inmates in the northern Brazilian state of Amazonas this week, as authorities confirmed they had received warnings of an "imminent confrontation" days before the attacks begun.

55 inmates were killed earlier this week in latest outbreak of violence

Relatives carry the coffin of 25-year-old William de Souza, an inmate killed in the recent prison riots, to a burial site in Manaus, Brazil, on Thursday. (Andre Penner/Associated Press)

Authorities in Brazil faced a growing backlash on Thursday after confirming they received warnings of an "imminent confrontation" between opposing gangs just days before 55 inmates were killed in violent prison clashes.

Amazonas state prison authorities said they implemented a contingency plan on May 23, transferring some prisoners who appeared to be at risk at the Provisional Detention Centre 1 in the city of Manaus to another facility. Still, five inmates were killed in that centre on Monday.

"There's no way you can identify the ideal moment or exact moment when any event will happen," said state prison secretary Vinicius Almeida. "Intelligence data is not a crystal ball."

Throughout the state, some began burying loved ones as others stood outside the Manaus forensic institute and waited for information about when they might retrieve corpses for burial. One woman fainted and had to be carried to a nearby car.

"It's humiliating to be waiting here," said Martinete Lira, whose nephew was killed in the violence. "This massacre happened once, it happened twice and it will happen again!"

A relative of an inmate is seen in tears at the forensic institute in Manaus, on Wednesday, after prisoners were found dead in four separate jails, according to the penitentiary department. (Bruno Kelly/Reuters)

Mounting anger 

The lack of preventative measures by authorities has led to renewed calls for better prisons, and anger is providing another challenge to the administration of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, which has pledged to clean up Brazil's festering jails as part of a broader crime-fighting agenda.

Adding to the fury, Amazonas Gov. Wilson Lima said the state would pay no indemnity to families of victims.

"The government has no money for that," Lima told reporters earlier in the week.

Rev. Joao Poli, who has been visiting inmates inside the state's prisons for nearly a decade, said the government's lack of consideration for family members reflects the way prisoners are treated inside the penitentiaries.

Brazilian riot police prepare to invade the Puraquequara prison facility in Manaus, on Monday. (Sandro Pereira/AFP/Getty Images)

"The exploitation of prisoners is dramatic," Poli, an Italian native, told The Associated Press.

The priest also criticized the privatization of the Amazonas prison system.

All four prisons where the killings took place Sunday and Monday were run under a public-private partnership with Brazilian company Umanizzare, according to the state prison secretary.

Umanizzare said the state remains responsible for security inside the facilities and the company is in charge of nearly everything else, from food to maintenance, medical attention and utilities.

Cramped jails overflowing

Severe overcrowding remains a key issue.

"More prisoners, more money," Poli said, noting that he once saw more than 30 people packed in a cell with eight mattresses at a prison in a remote area of Amazonas state.

In many of Brazil's prisons, badly outnumbered guards struggle to retain power over an ever-growing population of inmates who retain strong gang ties.

Prisons today are a time bomb. Tragedies waiting to happen.- lawyer Claudio Lamachia

The country's penitentiary system has an official capacity of 368,000, but roughly double that number — 726,000 — are incarcerated, according to official data from 2016. In Amazonas state, 11,390 inmates occupy prisons built to hold 2,354.

"It is absolutely necessary to build new prisons," said Claudio Lamachia, who was chairman of Brazil's bar association until the end of last year. "It's a way of investing in public security."

Lamachia, who has regularly visited prisons across Brazil, said it is not uncommon for prisoners to spend several days in police cars waiting for a space to become available.

"Prisons today are a time bomb. Tragedies waiting to happen," the lawyer said.

In January 2017, more than 120 inmates died when Brazil's First Capital Command clashed with the rival Family of the North gang over control of drug-trafficking routes in northern states. The violence lasted several weeks, spreading to various states.

The Anisio Jobim Prison Complex in Manaus was also the scene of gruesome fighting two years ago that left 56 prisoners dead. Fifteen inmates died in that same prison on Sunday.

Public security experts say that until Brazil improves its prisons, it will struggle to fully regain control of inmates, many of whom depend on prison gangs for food, money or survival.

Lamachia said that on one of his prison visits, inmates only allowed guards into cellblocks to deliver food, which would then be distributed by the gangs.

Prisoners, some on the floor, are packed into a crowded cell at the Instituto Penal Placido de Sa Carvalho in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Jan. 18, 2016. Approximately twice as many people are incarcerated in Brazil's penitentiary system than it was designed to hold. (The Associated Press)