BRAGANA PAULISTA, BRAZIL — SANDRA DE TOLEDO ZAGO recalls the times she cowered in her home, terrified by the sound of gunfire from the nearby city jail.
''It seemed like there were riots or escape attempts almost every week,'' she says. ''For years, I was very vocal about moving the jail away from the city.''
Now Mrs. Zago is one of the jail's biggest boosters, volunteering 10 hours a week to teach handicrafts to its prisoners in this rural city of 120,000 inhabitants, 53 miles north of Sao Paulo.
Zago's change of heart occurred after Braganca Paulista's residents ''adopted'' their public jail, paying for renovations and setting up a citizens' committee to oversee its administration.
Over the years, a lack of resources, mismanagement, and corruption had left the jail grossly overcrowded, infested with rats and cockroaches, with a leaky roof, and substandard food, hygiene, and medical care. Lacking space or tools, the 150 prisoners had nothing to do but sit idle all day in their cells.
Escape attempts, riots, and violence among prisoners were common. In early 1993, four inmates were killed in a knife fight.
But after the adoption, the jail improved so much that when an inmate recently tried to scale a wall, he was pulled down by fellow prisoners who admonished him for ''messing it up for the rest of us,'' according to several eyewitnesses.
After the 1993 knifing deaths, jail officials in desperation allowed a prisoner named Moises Cavalcanti to testify before the city council. Mr. Cavalcanti eloquently appealed for a solution before a ''serious rebellion explodes.'' That evening, the council voted to take charge of the jail, becoming the first Brazilian city to make such a move.
A new citizens' committee, the Association for Prisoner Protection and Assistance (APAC), then launched a campaign by television, radio, and door-to-door solicitations, asking for money, materials, and volunteers. ''I asked people to think of the humanitarian considerations,'' recalls Judge Nagashi Furukawa, the driving force behind APAC. ''If that didn't work, I asked them to think about their own safety, lower property values, and how dangerous those prisoners would be once they were freed.''
Over the next few months, residents and local companies donated $39,000 and construction materials, enough to renovate the dilapidated structure and build a 215-square-foot workshop, which opened in mid-1994. It is there that volunteers like Zago teach 50 inmates how to weave baskets from recycled newspapers, make silk flowers, carnival costumes, toys, and furniture.
A calmer place
Most important, the ''adoption'' virtually has ended the violence. ''There used to be knife fights all the time,'' remembers Joab Moraes, who is serving a 20-year sentence for murder. ''There's nothing like that anymore.''
''We fought because we did nothing but play cards and sleep on the floor,'' adds Gilson Cesar de Lima, who is serving a 14-year sentence for murder. ''Now, I have my own bed and look forward to doing something each day,'' referring to his job cutting gauze for a city hospital.
Judge Furukawa says he was forced to seek public support after several years of frustrated attempts to renovate the jail with state funds. He now hopes his city's program will catch on in the rest of the nation's prisons and jails, where riots, violence, and escapes are still a common occurrence.
According to the Ministry of Justice, inmates at Brazil's 511 prisons and jails attempt nine escapes daily and three revolts each month to protest conditions that are ''shocking and indecent,'' says James Cavallaro, director of the Brazil office of Human Rights Watch/Americas. ''Brazilian authorities don't even comply with the UN minimal standards of rules for prison conditions.''
Brazil's prisons hold 129,169 prisoners in areas designed for 59,954. It is not uncommon to find 30 to 50 inmates living in a single filthy cell, forced to sleep in shifts or on the floor.
There are fights over food and cigarettes, homosexual rape, and physical abuse by guards. Occasionally, inmates have protested their plight by committing suicide or by entering the ''death lottery,'' in which a list of fellow prisoners is drawn and the ''winner'' is killed.
President Cardoso beefs up prison budget
President Fernando Henrique Cardoso is well aware of the nation's crumbling penal system. In a radio speech last year, he conceded that ''the situation has been worsening for many years. It is time to change the rules of the game.''
Mr. Cardoso has more than doubled the prison budget from $15 million in 1995 to $36 million in 1996. He has also ordered the federal government to complete work on eight unfinished prisons and plans 59 more projects that should increase cell capacity by 14,236, according to the department of prison affairs.
The federal government is negotiating a loan with the Inter-American Development Bank to computerize prison record-keeping, pressing Brazil's judges to give nonviolent criminals community service sentences rather than jail time, and introducing probation. ''We have to catch up with the rest of the world,'' says Sandra Valle, secretary of justice for the Ministry of Justice. ''We can no longer ignore this out-of-control situation.''
In 1989, 18 prisoners suffocated at the Sao Paulo 42nd Precinct jail after police were called in to put down a riot and locked 51 inmates for three hours into a windowless cell.
Instead of waiting for Cardoso to act, Braganca Paulista officials are busy planning the construction of a new workshop and enticing local businessmen to participate. APAC, the resident committee that operates the prison, has recruited local toy, key chain, and appliance manufacturers, who promise to employ prisoners to produce their wares at jail workshops.