As Prison Life Deteriorates in Portugal, Some Stay

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LISBON -- Life inside Portugal's prisons has become intolerable, as budgets cuts render them overcrowded, short of necessities and rife with abuse -- and that is the view of the prison guards. So it was a surprise to Júlio Rebelo, the president of one of the guards' unions, that some prisoners did not seem to want to leave.

"We're in a situation of such austerity that many prisoners don't even apply for prison leave because at least their meals are paid inside," Mr. Rebelo said. "It's the first time I've seen this, but it seems families just don't have the means to welcome prisoners back at home."

Indeed, much of the reason for the deteriorating conditions inside Portugal's prisons is the deteriorating conditions outside. Government cuts and mounting hardship have added dangerous new burdens to a system that guards and prisoners alike warn is already stretched beyond its limits. Things are so bad, Mr. Rebelo said, "We have to bring our own toilet paper to work these days."

Approaching its fifth year of economic crisis, Portugal is increasingly feeling the bite but perhaps nowhere more sharply than in its prisons. The crisis has sent petty crime soaring. Thefts in the second quarter this year rose almost 14 percent, and were up 22 percent from the same time in 2008.

So hard pressed are many Portuguese that they can no longer afford to pay fines even for drunk driving or traffic violations and instead spend three or six months in prison, helping swell the population 10 percent beyond capacity.

Let alone toilet paper, budget cuts have coincided with the new burdens to leave the system wanting everything from guards to cells to more prisons, which have been put on hold as the government chops away at spending to meet the targets set by its international creditors.

Before Portugal was forced to request a €78 billion, or $102 billion, international bailout last year, the government had planned to build 10 new prisons, at a cost of €750 million. Now the government is building just one, in the Azores.

The surge of prisoners has made life "completely chaotic for the inmates and for those who work there," said Jorge Alves, the president of another guards' union.

Portugal's prison authorities would not grant a reporter and photographer access to one of its prisons, and the justice ministry declined a request for an interview. But early this year, Portugal's justice minister, Paula Teixeira da Cruz, recognized that conditions inside some prisons had become "shameful" and promised a €31 million overhaul of the system.

Prison guards, social workers and lawyers say those plans have fallen far short of what is needed, adding room by 2015 for just 1,137 more prisoners -- less than the overpopulation of prisons in Portugal as of June. Portugal's most recent official statistics indicate that its prisons had an occupancy rate of 110 percent, amounting to a surplus of 1,413 prisoners. The total number of inmates rose to 12,344 at the end of June from 11,099 in 2009.

In terms of overcrowding, Portugal ranks 13 out of 56 countries in greater Europe, including central Asian states like Azerbaijan, according to a study by the U.K.-based International Center for Prison Studies.

For his part, Mr. Alves works at the Custóias prison, which is built for 700 inmates. In the two months to mid-October, the number of prisoners there rose from 800 to 1,034, he said.

Mr. Rebelo, the other union leader, accused the government of manipulating statistics to play down the overcrowding problem. In Mr. Rebelo's prison, Sintra, the number of inmates is set to rise to 753 from 630 under a plan to add bunk beds. Sintra, one of Portugal's newest prisons, was built in 2004 to hold 600 inmates.

"They've changed their calculations for available space from square to cubic meters, so that bodies can basically be piled up while keeping ratios officially unchanged," he said.

The one thing the guards and the inmates can agree on is that conditions are terrible. "Guards are now working under the worst conditions that I've seen -- so I've got some sympathy for that -- but the real problem is that when guards are in such a bad state of mind, their response is unfortunately to pile on the abuses and violence," said Carlos Santos, a former inmate.

Mr. Santos knows Portugal's prison system only too well. He was released this year after 18 years in jail, spent in five different prisons for crimes that included homicide, drug trafficking and theft.

Mr. Santos said he spent his last year sharing a two-person cell with five other inmates. In September, inmates staged a strike to denounce beatings by guards, as well as worsening food and sanitary conditions, including having to share cells with inmates diagnosed with infectious diseases.

Former inmates claim basic items like shampoo and detergents, previously distributed for free, must now be bought, with guards in turn overcharging inmates and pocketing the difference. "In a crisis, corruption takes whatever little money is available out of the system," Mr. Santos said.

Portugal's prison guards insist the country's economic crisis has made their situation even more intolerable than that of the inmates. They complain of crumbling infrastructure and delays of six months to replace damaged security cameras. Meanwhile, the maintenance company that handles the prison fleet is refusing to repair any more vehicles until it gets paid for previous work.

After the guards already went on strike for several days last November, the government agreed to hire 240 new guards. The guards, however, say that 800 new recruits are needed to maintain order in overcrowded jails. "It would be a big mistake to underestimate what prison guards can do when they are put under intolerable pressure," Mr. Rebelo said.

While prisoners are complaining about more physical abuse by guards, Mr. Rebelo claimed that the number of assaults against guards had climbed as much as 200 percent in the past three years, in part because of the overcrowding.

The prospects for those who leave jail are gloomier as well. After spending 15 years in jail, Jorge Montero, 35, was released in 2009, just as joblessness started to rise. Unemployment is now almost 16 percent.

Unable to find work in Portugal, he said he had managed to avoid sinking into poverty only by traveling regularly to Switzerland, where he has family, and working there as a carpenter on short-term contracts.

"If you come out of jail in Portugal now, you've got almost zero chance of not going straight back in," he said, "because there's just nothing for you to do except sit around and stay poor and depressed."

Marisa Moura contributed reporting.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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