“If you go to a zoo, doctor, animals are better treated than us.” This was the phrase addressed to the team of the Specialized Center for Prison Situations of the Public Defender of São Paulo (Nesc) during a recent inspection in a prison unit in São Paulo.
Impossible not to give reason to the argument. The cells are overcrowded, often with three times more people than capacity allows, not enough ventilation or beds, dark, windowless and damp.
The lack of health care, the insufficiency of hygiene items, the severe rationing of water and the precariousness of food summarize the portrait of barbarism verified by the Public Defender’s Office in prison inspections.
São Paulo has 178 prisons across the state. How to stop a pandemic with the proliferation of overcrowded, unventilated spaces where prevention recommendations, such as hand washing, are impossible? The impacts of prison do not only affect incarcerated people, and taking care of these issues is a measure of public health care.
None of the 130 prison units in São Paulo included in a survey carried out by Nesc are adequate to the minimum health standards. In large part, there is not even a doctor working. At the Taquarituba Penitentiary, opened in 2014, there has never been one. The CDP (Provisional Detention Center) 2 in Pinheiros has been without it for more than nine years.
In addition to overcrowding and lack of water, there is a shortage of soap, reported in 69% of the units. At Cerqueira César Penitentiary 4.7 soaps per person were supplied in 2019. Data from Hortolândia Penitentiary 3 show that the replacement of the “hygiene kit” for each inmate is only possible every 20 months.
The analysis of budget data reinforces the diagnosis, as shown by the systematization undertaken by Plataforma Justa. In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, the São Paulo government cut R$ 14 million from health care in prisons and R$ 31 million from actions such as the purchase of hygiene products. In addition to the cuts, there was a reduction in investments in all actions of the Social Reintegration Management Program. For every BRL 6 provided for in the 2020 Annual Budget Law (LOA), at least BRL 1 was cut during the year. From the forecast of R$92.8 million, management committed R$76.5 million, a decrease of R$16.3 million.
The 2021 LOA shows that irrationality remains. There is a 3.4% reduction in spending on prison health care compared to 2020. It will be R$ 11.3 million less — while the amount reserved for institutional advertising by the São Paulo government is R$ 153.2 millions.
The failure to prioritize the lives of people trapped in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic is hardly surprising. São Paulo has long naturalized imprisonment as a priority response to deal with the symptoms of our social ills.
The first step to change this scenario is to recognize that the political option of the state of São Paulo for mass incarceration of its poor and vulnerable population is unsustainable, including from a budgetary point of view, and it is necessary to rationalize this system and start treating prisoners minimally as human beings.
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