In a desperate effort to improve their living conditions, the inmates of a Brazilian prison have resorted to a ``lottery of death.'' In Belo Horizonte 16 prisoners have been killed by their cell mates in the past two months in a sort of ``Brazilian roulette.'' The prisoners have threatened to kill one prisoner each week until the authorities promise to improve prison conditions.
The lottery has had the intended effect of calling public and government attention to severe overcrowding in Belo Horizonte prison.
Minister of Justice Fernando Lyra has recommended, in an official communiqu'e to Helio Garcia, the state governor of Minas Gerais, that communal cells in the prison be replaced by individual cells and that sanitation, hygiene, lighting, and food be improved.
Mr. Lyra announced June 3 that 21 billion cruzeiros (just under $4 million) would be released for reforming the Minas Gerais State prison system. He said, however, that the problem was not primarily monetary but administrative.
Although the death pact protest has not yet spread to other prisons, an attempted jail break on June 1 from a prison near Sao Paulo was, according to the prison director, a clear consequence of the overcrowding. The prison, which has a capacity for no more than 350 detainees, currently contains about 650 prisoners.
As a result of the violent protest, conditions in other Brazilian prisons are also beginning to come under scrutiny.
The daily newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo sent a reporter to look at the cells of the Sao Paulo State Department of Criminal Investigations. The resulting report provided a descriptive account of conditions of prison life.
The weekly news magazine Veja estimated that the Belo Horizonte evaluation center -- where prisoners are supposed to be sent temporarily before being assigned to a particular section of the prison -- has a capacity for about 40 detainees. About 300 are currently being housed there.
``They have turned the evaluation center into a maximum security penitentiary,'' complains a security official. The inmates there have about one square yard of space each and are rationed to one bath a month, reports Veja.
Justice Silvio Abreu said that not a single cell has been built in the state for 30 years because there is no money for it. And of the money promised, Brazilian journalist Ricardo Amaral (Veja) commented: ``There is a great deal to reform . . . [and] the result of the investment will be modest.''
Meanwhile, overcrowding continues at Belo Horizonte prison. Under the prisoners' lottery system, cell leaders write the names of men they want to kill on pieces of paper. These are put in a plastic bag. The first name out of the bag becomes the condemned man.
On May 29, ringleader Severino Ferreira de Lima had declared a 30-day truce on any killings in the prison, on hearing that a local judge had promised to close the cells and transfer the prisoners to other penal establishments in Minas Gerais state. But it apparently developed that there was no room elsewhere.
The truce was broken less than a week later when another prisoner was murdered by his five cell mates. He was chosen to die, not by the lottery method, but because he was thought to be a police spy.