19 March 2012

Don't Do The Crime If You Can't Do The Time

Let me be categorical, Mark and I have no intention of committing any crime which would cause us to be arrested and imprisoned in Brazil. That said, a few years ago something still compelled us to bring our university diplomas to Brazil and tuck them safely away — just in case. Why? Because under the Brazilian Constitution detainees who can prove they have a higher education are granted privileges that include better cells with fewer people per cell (other college grads), with a private bathroom and a television. Such is the depth of social stratification in Brazil that it continues in jail. And as I've said before, the Girl Scout in me likes to Be Prepared.

The subject of incarceration in Brazil is a very serious, complicated one that I don't mean to treat casually, certainly not in a short, irreverent blogpost. Most prisoners in Brazil are detained in extremely poor conditions. In some instances the cells are so overcrowded that the prisoners have to sleep in shifts, since not everyone can lie down at the same time. What you read in the book, and later saw in the film, Carandiru, was not fiction, it was based on actual events. No, I'm going to distance myself from the more complex issues and rant about a few of the perplexing rights — perplexing for a foreigner, that is — that Brazil accords its criminals.

The most startling difference between a jail term in the States and a jail term in Brazil is the conjugal visit. Actually, Brazil is not alone. The right to conjugal visits is granted in a carefully controlled manner around the world, except in the United Kingdom, and in all federal and most state prisons in the U.S.** In Brazil, the visita íntima is supposed to be granted only to deserving male prisoners (interesting that female prisoners do not yet enjoy this right here). In practice, though, most prisons grant the conjugal visits routinely. And given the wider net that Brazil throws over the definition of  "spouse" — a spouse can be a wife, a girlfriend, or any companion, partner, or friend with whom you have a stable union — well, these private, unsupervised conjugal visits are obviously a great way to pass notes, information, orders, instructions . . . no surprise to me how imprisoned drug lords are still running their cartels from the inside. All at the taxpayers' expense, to boot. I don't know Daniel Fraga, the guy in this video (sorry, it's only available in Portuguese) but you can hear the frustration.

Another surprising right is auxílio-reclusão, or reclusion aid, an indemnification paid by the government (read taxpayers) to the families of prisoners, provided the prisoner has worked and paid into the social security system at some time in his life. The idea is to offer financial support to a prisoner's family while their main wage earner is imprisoned. Keep the kids in school, the family fed, everyone on the straight and narrow. Only thing is, nothing comparable is done for the family of the victim, a family that might also have just lost its main wage earner. Not to mention that this reclusion aid is currently higher than minimum wage. Great disincentive for committing a crime.

From "The Caging of America"
Lest you think I'm under the illusion that the United States is the model for prison systems, think again. I'm still reeling from reading Adam Gopnik's "The Caging of America" in the January 30 issue of the New Yorker. A searing indictment of America's unprecedented mass incarceration of its people, "huge numbers of whom are serving sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world." I might poke fun at the easy granting of conjugal visits in Brazil, but the Brazilian system — with all of its many flaws — is the more humane.

**Plan your crime carefully! Commit state felonies only in California, Connecticut, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York or Washington if conjugal visits are an issue for you.

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