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Inmates are seen in the Pedrinhas prison complex in Sao Luis, Brazil. Reports of beheadings and cannibalism at the prison prompted a media storm in 2013.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Victoria Pereira, age 12, was alone at home watching TV on Oct. 2, 2013. A news bulletin caught her attention – about a riot at the Pedrinhas prison complex, where her dad had been taken 10 days before. The newscaster said three prisoners had been killed – that one had been decapitated, in fact. And then they said her father's name.

Elson de Jesus Pereira had been taken to the jail after being convicted of selling stolen tires from his small repair shop. The criminal prosecution of Mr. Pereira was filled with irregularities and he was given an unusually harsh six-year sentence, despite having no prior record. Then, court officials shipped him to Pedrinhas, 40 kilometres outside the capital of Maranhao, one of Brazil's least-developed states. He was put into a cell wing that was run by a prison gang. Eleven days later, the day after he turned 44, he was killed, although prison authorities didn't tell his wife, Tereza, before they informed media about the riot.

"The indignity of it – it revolts me," Ms. Pereira said, weeping angrily in a recent interview in her family's tiny apartment.

There was considerable media attention to Mr. Pereira's death. There was another flurry when two other prisoners in Pedrinhas were cannibalized, and when three more prisoners were beheaded weeks later and their murders captured in a widely circulated cellphone video made by prisoners. None of this, however, provoked widespread public outrage, or soul-searching, or questioning of Brazil's policy of mass incarceration. This country has the fourth-largest prison population in the world. But the three countries ahead of Brazil on that list – the United States, China and Russia – are all moving quickly to lower the number of people they jail. In the United States, mass incarceration has become an election issue, one aspect of the "Black Lives Matter" campaign.

In Brazil, on the other hand, the rate of incarceration grew an average of 7 per cent a year in each of the past 15 years, 10 times faster than the population grew. Legislators are currently considering a law that would lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16, which would put an estimated additional 32,000 people behind bars in its first year. The law has the support of 87 per cent of the public, according to opinion polls. Brazil is currently short of 231,000 prison spaces.

"The entire scope of public policy here is 'lock people up,'" said Natalia Damazio, a lawyer with a Rio-based human-rights organization called Justica Global who works on prison issues. "And it's getting worse, not better." The prison population has risen 508 per cent between 1990 and 2013. Ms. Damazio is pursuing a case involving a prison in the northeast called the Curado Complex; built for 1,000 people, it holds 7,000.

The violence at Pedrinhas in recent years was notably grisly, she said, but conditions are similar in all of this country's jails, with prisoners having little to no access to clean water, safe food or health care. And, as the Pereira case made clear, prisoners have no guarantee of security.

Mass incarceration also creates and feeds another problem for Brazil: The prisons are largely in the control of gangs, such as the one that killed Mr. Pereira. Their power as national criminal organizations has grown exponentially in the past 20 years as the rate of imprisonment – particularly of young men for drug offences – has surged. Prisoners must affiliate with gangs to survive inside jails, Ms. Damazio explained, and they are then tied to a life of criminal involvement – fuelling the public-security crisis.

Pedrinhas is, in fact, seven prisons in a complex, ranging from minimum security to maximum. After the beheadings and cannibalism, the state government admitted it had lost control of the interior of the prison and sent in a heavily-armed elite national police squad, who waged a battle for more than two weeks to reclaim control.

Prisoners were forced back into cells and gradually stripped of most weapons. Then the government shipped the leaders of the gangs to a federal maximum-security prison and divided up other inmates by affiliation, each gang with their own jail – so that they could no longer war within the prison.

Murders dropped immediately. There was a push to speed up appearances before a judge, in order to ease overcrowding. Officials set up new spaces for study and work (such as pillow production) in the jail, and improved spaces for family visits – before the separation, women who came to visit men in the jail were being seized and raped by rival gang members.

Today, in a wing that prison officials permitted a Globe reporter to tour recently, two prisoners share a cell two by three metres, so that one sleeps on a narrow concrete ledge and the other on the floor. Trash litters the ground, while the walls are splashed with graffiti that endures from the days prisoners had free run of the wings. "It's better in here now," one young man said through the letter-sized slot in his cell door. "It used to be more violent. But still you don't know if someone will break out from their section and come here to kill you."

The hideous conditions in Brazil's prisons are a reflection of the weakness of its justice system. An estimated 41 per cent of prisoners should not even be in jail: While awaiting trial, they have already served more time than the maximum sentence for the crime of which they are accused; or they have completed their sentence but have no idea because they never have a lawyer; or one of a number of other absurd situations arising from a critical shortage of public defenders and years-long backlog of cases.

The vast majority of those who are charged with offences are black and poor, Ms. Damazio noted; white people caught with drugs, for example, are almost always warned and released, while black ones are charged with dealing.

And almost no one speaks for prisoners, a constituency with no public support in a crime-weary Brazilian public. Claudio Cabral, is a public prosecutor in Maranhao, in the northeast of the country, who has followed the cases of those who are killed in prison for nearly 20 years. Recently he sent the federal government a dossier of more than 500 pages listing incidents in which no one has been found responsible for the Pedrinhas killings. Within the prison, a code of silence keeps inmates from talking, he said. Only one Maranhao government official has been held accountable for prison violence in more than two decades.

There are steep consequences for this for Brazil: The First Capital Command, a gang known by its Portuguese acronym PCC, began in a Sao Paulo prison in 1993. It and its affiliates now form an international criminal organization that runs drugs from Bolivia down to Paraguay, with bank accounts in the United States and China. PCC leaders in prison sent members outside the jail on a rampage in 2006 that killed more than 100 people, including many police officers.

The Red Command, a gang that began as an organization of prisoners protesting poor conditions, today runs hundreds of low-income neighbourhoods of Rio de Janeiro, and civilians die each week in its members' shootouts with police.

Yet, because of prison conditions, a jail sentence in the country today is tantamount to gang enrolment, explained Edivaldo Santos da Silva, a lanky 29-year-old who has been locked up at Pedrinhas three times in the past four years, for theft and drug convictions. He didn't use drugs and was not in a gang until after he went to jail, he said, but the help the gang offered was invaluable. "They said, 'We will see if we can get something for your family, give some support. … We will get them some money, we will pay for a lawyer.'"

The riots he saw in Pedrinhas began as protests, he said, against worm-infested food, 15 men in a cell built for six and the failure to be brought before a judge. But inevitably, gang rivalries would intrude – and then it was kill or be killed.

"I know someone who cut off someone's neck, held their heads. He said, 'Look, brother, what I did.' He regrets it now. When he came to stop, analyze it, understand that was a life he took, there was regret. But in there, it was a fight to survive. The thinking is, 'I have to kill if I want to survive. No one has my back.' It's a very complicated situation, that generates brutality."

An estimated 70 per cent of Brazilians convicted of crimes reoffend, one of the highest rates of recidivism in the world. Mr. da Silva, who today makes a meagre wage as an itinerant evangelical preacher, said it's almost impossible to go straight, since former prisoners are stigmatized, shunned and unemployable.

Jose Antonio Ribeiro was killed in Pedrinhas in 2010. He had been jailed for attempting to steal a handbag, was given temporary leave for Christmas after serving a year and didn't go back. He stayed free for two years before police showed up at the door. He sent his sister, Maria, to plead with them. "He told me to tell them he would be killed if he went back," she said. She went to the local police station and pleaded with the officer in charge. "[An officer in charge] told me that my brother would be very safe where he was going – he said it in a very sarcastic way." Police returned Mr. Ribeiro to Pedrinhas and he was dead before morning.

Both the Ribeiro and Pereira families have hired lawyers to sue the state for compensation; their cases are frozen in the glacial legal system. Tereza Pereira has Parkinson's disease and is raising her two younger children on a disability pension of $260 a month. She remains deeply angry that media and prison officials painted her husband as a hardened gang member killed in an internal dispute; she, and others in their community, say he had no previous contact with criminals and was a devoted father who loved his motorbike, his football club and Sunday outings with his family.

"My husband had been taken into custody by the state – he was their responsibility. They are accomplices in his death," Ms. Pereira said. "They took him from the security of our home and dumped him there. … They sentenced him to death – to decapitation, to be more precise."

The only compensation the state ever provided her family, she said, was the coffin in which they sent home his brutalized body. "And when we picked it up, it fell apart. And we had to buy a new one to bury him."

With a report from Manuela Andreoni

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated the state government sent the armed forces to the prison. In fact, it was a heavily-armed elite national police squad.