Dateline reveals the filth and squalorinBrazil's largest prison.Replay the LIVE ONLINE CHAT with reporter Giovana Vitola.
Sunday, April 18, 2010 - 20:30

Dateline has managed to get access to the largest prison in Latin America, where thousands of people are living and dying in filth and squalor. It's described as like 'being in a rubbish tip', where prisoners die every day with little medical assistance.

Central Prison in the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil was built 50 years ago to house 2,000 offenders, but now has 5,000 inmates crowded into rancid, ramshackle cells.

Giovana Vitola, a broadcaster from SBS Radio's Portuguese service, was able to film inside the prison for Dateline because those inspecting it are desperate to reveal its true nature.

But how is this able to happen in a country with a strong economy, preparing to host the world at the 2016 Olympics?

Watch Giovana describe her experiences and replay the live online chat, when Giovana's answered viewers' questions after the program.

You can also hear Giovana talk about her experience in Portuguese on SBS Radio's Portuguese website.

Live Chat

Reporter Giovana Vitola was online after Dateline on Sunday 18th April to answer your questions about her experience filming in Brazil’s largest prison, where 5,000 inmates live, and die, in filth and squalor.

The chat ran from 9.30pm-10.30pm AEST, so apologies to viewers of later showings,  but Giovana was only available online for a limited time. Anyone who missed the chat can replay it below or leave comments on the story here.



Every once in a while, someone walks into our office with footage that stops our producers in their tracks. It mightn't be heavy-duty stuff on the world's biggest issue, but because of what it reveals and how it's filmed we know straight away that it's crying out to be broadcast. That pretty much sums up the material brought to Dateline by our guest in the studio, Giovana Vitola. Giovana is a Brazilian video journalist who works part-time here in SBS Radio.

REPORTER: George Negus

GEORGE NEGUS: Giovana, welcome. That's what you do here, isn't it? You work normally in radio.


GEORGE NEGUS: But recently, as I understand it, you went back home to Brazil.


GEORGE NEGUS: Any particular reason?

GIOVANA VITOLA: Just visiting family and friends, and I did a bit of work, too.

GEORGE NEGUS: And then you got carried away, as it were, right? You did do some work. You couldn't resist it, could you? And what did you decide to do?

GIOVANA VITOLA: I went to this prison - it's called the Central Prison of Porto Alegre, in the south most state of Brazil - where I am from, actually - and this is the largest prison in Latin America and considered, for the past few years, the worst in Brazil. The conditions are pretty bad.

GEORGE NEGUS: Any restrictions on your movements, stuff like that? It sounds pretty dodgy. I mean, I gather that it might have even been dangerous, potentially dangerous, anyway.

GIOVANA VITOLA: Very dodgy, and it felt quite confronting in many times. I had two guards with me, and I was allowed in the low-risk section of the prison, with minor criminals there because, otherwise, it would be too risky. If I go to the main part of the prison - actually, it wouldn't be possible - but the inspectors that I talked with, they go and they need to use bullet proof jackets, they have to be very careful -

GEORGE NEGUS: Sounds like a fun place.


GEORGE NEGUS: Stay with us. As they say, pictures speak louder than words, so let's show the folks at home why, as you told us more or less, this place is close enough to hell on earth.

JUDGE SIDINEI BRZUSKA, PRISON INSPECTOR (Translation): Most Brazilian prisons are so bad that the prisoners lose their sense of dignity in terms of how they are treated. There is no money spent in this area, so lots of prisoners are crammed into terrible conditions. The level of disease in our prisons, diseases that should have been eradicated - like tuberculosis - for example, is very high and resembles medieval times.

We have prisoners dying every day in our prisons - the majority don't receive medical assistance - they end up going to the hospital in a terrible state and many do not survive. Some die in prison without any assistance. There is a popular expression we have in Brazil which says 'If a prisoner has committed a heinous crime - that person should rot in hell.' That is a popular expression and here we have people, who are literally rotting in hell.

The prison wall has two functions, the first is to stop the prisoners escaping and the second is to stop people seeing what happens inside. So, because society distances itself from this more and more and because they want prisoners to suffer and be punished and go through hard times, our system is the way it is today. That is how it is in Brazil.

Funding regarding all aspects of the prisons is basically zero - very little. This is the result of a historical issue - it has never been a priority for the political factions - improving the prisons has never been on their agenda because it does not win votes. So the prison system is like a snowball, people start committing more barbaric crimes and many of them are controlled from inside the prisons. The internal gangs exploit other inmates and they demand money - they make profits because they charge the prisoners - they charge them to sleep, to shower, for medication, for food, right? We have prisoners who sleep sitting up - there is not enough space. If there is not enough space to lie down obviously there is no space to work. The situation is chaotic.

GILMAR BORTOLOTTO, PRISON INSPECTOR (Translation): This state of affairs - let me put it this way, is a laboratory generating all these criminal problems. These are weapons seized inside the prison, these guns are used to conquer territory, they are not used against the guards - not against the guards usually - just against each other, to dominate. Death is the fate of the majority.

Things are smuggled in many ways - they come in with visitors and staff - even like this, inside peoples bodies.

REPORTER (Translation): Is that an X-ray?

GILMAR BORTOLOTTO (Translation): Yes, on this X-ray we detected a mobile phone, here are some more and they smuggle drugs the same way as mobile phones - like in this photo they are hidden in rubber, high fusion tape and carbon paper to conceal them from the metal detector.

Each cell is designed for eight inmates but contains 40 - they are even living in bathrooms. See, there are mattresses where the toilets should be. Terrible conditions. This is the corridor of the prison, the prisoners are sleeping in the corridor, some even sleep on top of the toilet walls. Those are men who died from lack of medical assistance - they basically ;rot away.

REPORTER (Translation): How could that happen?

GILMAR BORTOLOTTO (Translation): the guy's a paraplegic, he cannot move by himself, he depends on others - he does not get medical attention. His sores rot, get infected and he dies. Another scene; this is a mentally ill prisoner handcuffed to the wall who has defecated by his bed. This is another mentally ill prisoner - we see prisoners in this condition all the time.

REPORTER (Translation): Are all the inmates in this condition mentally ill?

GILMAR BORTOLOTTO (Translation): No, some are mentally ill and some are common prisoners.

REPORTER (Translation): So the medical assistance;.

JUDGE SIDINEI BRZUSKA (Translation): Is almost non-existent. This prisoner has cancer.

If we stop our inspections in one month it will get much worse, it is medieval here. Due to the overcrowding the state can't control what is happening behind bars and these are places that generate more crime. They are places that work as catalysts for crime.

PRISONERS (Translation): It's over, we want to leave, we want to go, we want to leave.

JUDGE SIDINEI BRZUSKA (Translation): The population has an unfortunate attitude, the sentences given to criminals are never enough - they have to go to a place where they will suffer. Let's put it this way;. It is the wish of the people. That is wrong - it is a questionable attitude and these are the consequences.

PRISONERS (Translation): The water is yellow. We are missing mattresses here. Give us a hand. The water is making us sick. The situation is critical!

JUDGE SIDINEI BRZUSKA (Translation): Today the lives of those serving a sentence depend on the parallel state. If I am inside one of those sections where they walk freely; who will protect my life? They will. If they want me to die, I'll die. So my life inside depends on my silence and submission. This state of affairs can only be changed with funding from the government - we need to build new prisons with the right facilities to separate first timers from the repeat offenders, the most dangerous ones from the minor ones, because this is a system that enslaves many people.

MAN (Translation): Here are the toilets, they are small. You can see, two toilets for 70 people and one shower here. If you take a quick look in here, two toilets and one shower only. This is where we clean our dishes

REPORTER (Translation): Can you put the kettle on?

MAN (Translation): You want me to turn it on?

REPORTER (Translation): That is dangerous, you could get a shock.

MAN (Translation): The wires are all like this. They go straight into the power socket. It takes around an hour and a half to boil.

REPORTER (Translation): Show me the mattresses.

MAN (Translation): Here they are, for those who sleep on the floor, there are more under the beds too. More mattresses under the beds. The toilets are broken. Some men were released to make room and now they are back - it is going to be even more crowded - some people were released but new ones came in and now the guys that were released are coming back too. And how about the new guys that came in? It did not help - they brought everyone back!

JUDGE SIDINEI BRZUSKA (Translation): We use a phrase from Nelson Mandela ' the level of a nations development is defined not by how it treats its illustrious but by how it treats its marginalised, it's prisoners.' Nelson Mandela says you don't know a country until you know that country's prisons.

GEORGE NEGUS: 'Medieval' is definitely the word. I've seen a lot, Giovana, but that beggared just about even my mind. I mean, you were telling me that that 'thing' that we just saw there - that hell hole - was supposed to be a model prison.

GIOVANA VITOLA: Yes. It was supposed to be for about 1,000 - 1,500.

GEORGE NEGUS: And how many were there?

GIOVANA VITOLA: 5,000 prisoners there.

GEORGE NEGUS: Really? When you're away from that place, and now that you've had time to think about it, how does it make you feel about your country?

GIOVANA VITOLA: Ashamed. Very ashamed.

GEORGE NEGUS: I mean, on a human rights scale alone, I couldn't see Brazil getting many points out of 10 for that.

GIOVANA VITOLA: No. The prisoners in Brazil, when they go to prison, they don't only lose their freedom, but their dignity. Human rights just doesn't exist basically in a place like this and I'm not proud of that.

GEORGE NEGUS: I understand that. Well, thank you very much, and a terrible situation. Well done, very well done. Thanks for showing us that, thank you. And Giovana will be online for an hour after the program to answer your questions about her experience filming in the prison and the challenges facing her home country of Brazil. You can take part by going to our website - - from 9:30pm eastern standard time.