Prisons are overpopulated, intense, dangerous gladiatorial coliseums at the best of times.
On a bad day, they’re vulnerable to extreme violence and death of the sort we saw emerge from Brazil the other day, when footage purported to show inmates apparently ‘barbecuing’ a victim’s flesh.
Alcacuz prison had previously been the scene of violent gang fights. Some of the 26 jail-mates massacred were beheadings.
Military police are currently trying to appease this gang warfare by building a wall of shipping containers.
The gang members in the video footage which emerged from the scene are known to belong to Family of the North, an Amazon drug cartel, and the Red Command, a Rio de Janeiro gang, respectively.
Their burned victim is said to have been a part of the First Capital Command (PCC), a Sao Paulo gang who had previously held close ties with the Red Command until a falling out last year, thus spurring a string of bloody jail riots.
In the footage, you can hear one prisoner shouting ‘Churrasco do PCC’ over and over, which translates to ‘PCC Steak’.
Another says ‘and this is only the beginning’, whilst holding a knife.
Prisons in Brazil have notorious reputations. “These massacres occur almost daily in Brazil,” said Father Valdir Silveira, director of Pastoral Carceraria, a Catholic centre that monitors Brazilian prison conditions.
“Our prisons were built to annihilate, torture and kill.”
Seventy per cent of Brazilians convicted of crimes reoffend. It remains one of the highest rates of its kind in the world.
And it certainly isn’t the first prison riot to end in death and tragedy.
San Miguel Prison Fire – Chile
A fire that broke out during a fight between inmates at San Miguel prison in Santiago, Chile, back in late 2010 ended up killing 81 prisoners. Inmates had used homemade flame-throwers created from a hosepipe and gas canister. They set alight to a mattress barricade put up by a rival gang in their cell. What’s particularly shocking about the Chile fire, the worst in its prison history, was the fact the victims were all serving five years or less for crimes such as DVD piracy.
The Carandiru Massacre
On October 2, 1992, prison riots at Carandiru Penitentiary in Sao Paulo, Brazil, led to more than 300 military policemen killing 111 inmates and wounding 35.
At the time, Carandiru was the largest prison in Latin America. Built to fit 3,500 prisoners, its population soared to 7,300 and this earned it the nickname of ‘the Powder Keg’.
Only 22 officers were injured during the incident, which led many to believe they enforced unjust violence. Eyewitnesses claim many inmates were shot whilst hiding or attempting to surrender.
As of 2014, 73 of those policemen had been sentenced to life imprisonment for murder.
Strangeways Church Takeover
In 1990, 300 prisoners who had turned up for Sunday morning service at Strangeways Prison, Manchester, began to riot after one inmate, Paul Taylor, crashed the sermon, grabbed the microphone and shouted: “Let’s take the prison!” The other prisoners then lunged for the guards and climbed through the chapel roof.
They infiltrated other wings of the prison to free more men in order to completely take over the facility. Most of them surrendered by the end of day, but 200 of them still owned large areas and had even taken guards hostage.
All in all, considering the rooftop protests demanding better treatment, the riot lasted 25 days.
One inmate died during that time and another 194 were injured.
Attica Prison Riot, 1971
Arguably the most famous prison riot occurred at Attica Correctional Facility in New York in 1971. Like Carandiru, it spawned from problems inherent to a mass-populated prison.
Rumours had spread after two inmates had been mistaken for having a fight on September 8th and taken away for punishment, which included torture. This miscommunication led to exactly 1,000 prisoners seizing a massive section of Attica, taking 42 staff members hostage as they did so.
A big chunk of the rioters were ethnic minorities and were protesting the apparent racism of the guards.
After four days, New York Governor, Nelson Rockefeller, ordered the police to take back the prison, dropping tear gas into the yard. They then stormed the prison, ending the mutiny. Ten hostages and 29 prisoners died from friendly fire.
The families of those victims were given large financial settlements after decades of court hearings.