The prison ‘hell’ that Michael Lynn prefers to extradition

From a notoriously grim Brazilian jail, the fugitive Irish lawyer fights on not to be sent home

Overcrowded and described as barbarous:  Cotel prison in Recife, Brazil. Photograph: Federal Police of Brazil

Overcrowded and described as barbarous: Cotel prison in Recife, Brazil. Photograph: Federal Police of Brazil

 

On a muggy Wednesday morning a steady stream of women make their way towards the Cotel remand prison, home of the fugitive Irish lawyer Michael Lynn since his arrest in Brazil two years ago this Saturday.

Mostly poor and black, they come to this bleak spot, located at the end of a rutted road in an industrial estate on the outermost reaches of the Brazilian city of Recife, to register for weekend visits with loved ones held inside.

Brazilian authorities rarely let journalists into their prisons and they rejected an Irish Times request to visit the facility holding Mr Lynn as he fights extradition back to Ireland to face charges relating to the collapse of his property empire in 2007.

But some of the relatives coming to register were willing to talk about what they knew of life inside Cotel. Among the terms they used to describe the prison’s conditions were disgusting, cruel, barbarous and inhuman. A sickly smell of raw sewage hung in the air around the compound as they spoke.

Overcrowding

The women spoke of the knife-wielding older inmates who ran much of the prison, selling bunk space, illicit mobile phone calls and drugs to those with money. Mothers spoke with fear of these so-called cabeças – heads – who their sons had told them are not to be crossed. Those who do so can expect brutal beatings, with the prison guards either unwilling or unable to intervene. “If hell exists, it’s in there,” said one woman.

Nearly all those approached by The Irish Times spoke on condition of anonymity. “I have to be careful. I don’t want to create any problems for my boy with the authorities or the cabeças,” said a mother whose son was arrested for robbery.

Other visitors spoke respectfully of the cabeças. “They don’t allow fighting. They impose harmony,” said a young woman whose 30-year old drug-dealer husband is facing a fifth stretch in prison. “If you show respect, you live okay inside. If you have friends, you live better.”

Other women fell quiet as she spoke. After she left, one of them commented: “You never know who is who. There are powerful people in there. On visiting day you see women driving up in expensive 4x4s to visit their husbands. Who knows where the money comes from? But you can guess. The best thing to do is keep your head down and avoid any confusion.”

The root cause of what the UN recently described as the “chaotic conditions” inside Brazil’s prisons is overcrowding. Cotel currently has 2,691 inmates despite an official capacity of just 732. Its staff are caught between Brazilian society’s demand that criminals be taken off the streets and its reluctance to pay the extra taxes to house them.

Mr Lynn is spared from the worst of the system thanks to his law degree. To shelter well-off Brazilians from the brutality of the country’s prisons, anyone with a third-level qualification is separated from the other inmates and housed in blocks for more vulnerable prisoners.

In Cotel, the so-called special pavilion holds 21 prisoners, meaning Mr Lynn does not suffer from the worst of the overcrowding and has little contact with the general prison population. He reportedly spends his day in a concreted communal area giving English lessons to other prisoners.

But those who know the special pavilion warn that while conditions are better than in the other pavilions, it does not mean its inmates have it easy.

“It is less crowded and you are mixing with prisoners with better education, so this also makes a difference,” said defence lawyer Ydigoras Ribeiro before entering to meet nine clients currently inside Cotel. “But it is all relative. People who do not know our prisons would find it grim.”

Tough conditions

The Irish TimesIrish Embassy

Prison service officials told The Irish Times that the Mayo man has always demonstrated good behaviour in prison and has never been in trouble either with the regime or with other prisoners.

Mr Lynn declined a request for an interview in prison. Efforts to contact his wife, Bríd Murphy, were unsuccessful. Described as “utterly loyal” to her husband, she has stayed in Recife. The couple have had a third child since his detention.

At the shack outside Cotel’s entrance, from where she has sold snacks to the jail’s visitors for the past 14 years, Dona Marisa swears she has seen “the gringo prisoner” (whose arrest made headlines in the local news) as he helped guards at the entrance weigh the parcels visitors bring for relatives.

“When you are not dangerous, you are allowed to help staff with little jobs,” she said. “He was as white as you are and didn’t speak good Portuguese.”

Dona Marisa and one of her customers, Valdir, expressed amazement when they learned that Mr Lynn could leave Cotel at any time by agreeing to return to Ireland to face trial. Valdir knew what life inside was like from visiting a nephew picked up for drug possession, and described conditions as hard.

Told that Mr Lynn would likely face detention in a tough Irish prison ahead of his trial, Valdir just shrugged and, nodding over his shoulder, replied: “I bet you it’s still much better than in there.”