ILHA GRANDE, Brazil
It was 1960, and Julio de Almeida had been locked away for two years in a hellish prison called Cândido Mendes on the island of Ilha Grande, Brazil’s version of Alcatraz. Since his arrival there, his days followed the rhythm of a siren’s regular howl. When it woke him at 5, Julio and the other inmates had an hour and a half to present themselves before a giant gate at the foot of the watchtower, where they’d muster for a day in the fields. There, for six hours under scorching heat, the prisoners dug, planted and sowed. The siren sounded when they were done.
But sometimes it blared off-schedule when a prisoner tried to escape. “A lot died trying,” Julio says.
The day Julio attempted his getaway, he complained to a guard about stomach pain. A prison doctor sent Julio to Lazaret, a prison on the other side of the island near the village of Abraão that had been converted from a hospital. Prisoners could receive treatment there.
Before becoming the tourist haven it is now, filled with multicolored pousadas — the local bed and breakfasts — restaurants and gift shops, Abraão was a modest port town, and the end of the line for boatloads of prisoners. Close to the mainland, Abraão was the only port of entry to Ilha Grande.
Everything was going according to Julio’s plan.
As Julio continued to complain about his stomach, the doctors kept him at Lazaret for a few days to monitor him. To stay fit, he occasionally worked on the plantation. From the fields, he could see the Conceição de Jacarei, a town flanked by mountains overlooking the coast across the sea. It was only a few hours by boat. From there, Rio de Janeiro.
“I’m going to escape,” Julio boasted to one of his guards. He was sure the man would help him because the two had become friends over time. They had even run off into the island village together to steal vegetables from the locals. Julio says the prison food was “absolutely disgusting,” and the guards, too, were forced to eat it. With the vegetables, Julio, a gifted chef, could usually turn their rations into something edible.
Julio was right about his friend. Together, they studied the best way to escape the island, observing the guards’ patterns, plotting the route and the timing. Julio was avoiding his previous mistakes, a few months back, when he tried to escape the first time. Guards caught him before he could even leave the island.
This time it would be different.
One night, Julio crept away and stormed toward the jungle-dense hills outside Lazaret. To reach the beach, Julio had to cut through the suffocating flora of palm trees, lianas and banana trees. Guided only by the shining stars above his head, Julio danced over the roots creeping up around him — falling would hasten his discovery. He was surely being chased.
Hours later, he arrived at Saco do Céu beach, stole a small boat and sailed off into the sea. The mainland was a mere 100 kilometers away. To find his path, Julio had studied the stars, the maps, the currents. If his direction was off, all was lost. Past the last islands of the Ilha Grande archipelago, there would be no more land till the western coast of Africa.
All was not lost. Julio reached the coast of Conceição de Jacarei and boarded the first train to Rio de Janeiro as a free man.
It is perhaps odd, then, to find Julio de Almeida here in the heart of Ilha Grande, the place he desperately tried to leave for so long. But this is where we meet him one afternoon last June. The sun is high above the green mountains behind the village of Dois Rios. Julio is sitting outside a café. At his back are the ruins of the Cândido Mendes penitentiary. A long strip of high palm trees lead to its main entrance, guarded by two metal doors. One hundred years after its opening, the building still watches the ones who live in Ilha Grande through the tiny portholes of its gigantic stone ramparts.
The old man seems at peace here, despite his own experience and the penitentiary’s history of torture, violence, rape and murder.
The café owner hands Julio half a glass of cachaça, a liquor made from sugarcane. Slowly, he brings the liquid to lips hidden behind a white bushy beard. Under his torn red cap, he has a kind, grandfatherly face. He wears an oversized khaki jacket and a pair of denim cut-off shorts.
At 83, Julio still dresses in the street clothes of the young troublemaker he once was, wandering Pétropolis, a city outside Rio de Janeiro, where he was born in 1931. He lived with 16 brothers and sisters until he was 9 years old, when he left home to live among other street kids. He couldn’t read and could only write his name. He later served in the military and tried to make ends meet with odd jobs in Rio. But it didn’t last. “After that, I started a life of crime,” he says. His memory is foggy, but he remembers the beaches of Copacabana and Flamengo, famous tourist sites also known for their poverty and crime. “I stole and killed to make a living,” he says.
We ask Julio several times to tell us about the murder and his life of crime, but he won’t go into it. He simply says he did it to stay alive. But it wouldn’t keep him free. Police finally arrested him on several charges of theft and one of murder.
Convicted, Julio was sent to a Rio prison in 1958 and locked in a cell — from which he soon escaped. But he was caught again and sentenced more severely: 28 years in high security at Cândido Mendes.
Julio knew what to expect there. Inmates called it the “Caldeirão do Diablo,” the Devil’s Cauldron. It was a place you would find “alcoholics, beggars, homeless men and capoeira dancers from all around the country,” says Myrian Sepulveda dos Santos, a sociologist at the University of Rio de Janeiro who studies the penitentiary. The prisoners suffered from malnutrition, filthy conditions and dysentery. “They put these individuals on the side of the track — and most of them happened to be black and poor — where they’d end up dead.”
Gangs from the impoverished ghettos of Rio called it home. Their members regularly beat the other inmates and were deemed responsible for a number of violent deaths.
Julio and 30 others arrived at the prison-island by boat. What he experienced was similar to what André Torres describes in his 1985 book, Exílio Na Ilha Grande: “The soldiers, armed with heavy machine guns, took their positions. They formed a long corridor that led to the boarding bridge. The drivers opened the doors, and the prisoners, oblivious to the protocol, exited the trucks and lined up, waiting to be called by the sergeant, who yelled the names he read on a slip of paper. … After picking up their stuff, the prisoners jumped into the boats and were sent down the hold. … The empty trucks left. The ship waited for the remaining passengers to board and sailed to Abraão. It took us two hours to reach Ilha Grande’s entry point.”
Julio’s vehicle stopped at the jail’s entrance, near an altar of Our Lady of the Apparition, the patron saint of Brazil. The condemned men paid tribute, then abandoned all hope. At the gate, Julio signed some documents and stepped onto the prison grounds. Two giant metal doors clanged shut behind him.
Julio spent his first three years in a 4-by-8-meter cell with two dozen inmates sentenced for misdemeanors. In the corner was the toilet and a sink. A plastic pipe poked down from the ceiling: the shower.
When work at the plantations, or colonios, was over, everyone could do whatever they liked: pray, listen to music, read or, for those who were not exhausted, a game of soccer. But at 9 p.m., the siren screamed again. Time for the prisoners to return to their cell for the night. And when the sound finally stopped, no noise was tolerated until the next morning.
Everyday life was tough, but Julio acclimated well. “Todo bem,” he smiles. “Life in prison was quiet. I was friends with all the companheiros that came and left, as well as with the guards and the pencil pushers. I was behaving properly and had no problem whatsoever.” He even befriended the warden. “I did everything he asked me to do.”
Yet in 1960, Julio escaped.
He spent the next four years as a thief in Rio, running around with the wrong people, before the police caught him again. The court sentenced him for a crime he had committed a few years before. Julio wasn’t surprised when the judge ordered him back to Ilha Grande.
On the island, the warden called Julio to his office. He sat down without being asked and told the warden everything. He admitted he was obsessed with going back to Rio. Even if that meant becoming a felon again, pacing filthy streets in dangerous neighborhoods, living in the company of death — Julio could not get this idea out of his head.
In another set of circumstances, this obsession, and sharing it with the prison boss, could have been a grave mistake. But Julio was a well-mannered prisoner, and the warden liked him. He offered Julio a deal.
If Julio promised to be an exemplary prisoner, maybe the warden would talk to a judge or two to set him up with a special status: colonio livre. It would allow him to live outside the prison after the workday. Fifty other inmates enjoyed such a privilege.
“What would you do in Rio, anyway?” the warden asked, according to Julio. “Without a home or even some money, I mean, if you have nothing, what would you do? Why not stay here? You’d have food, shelter, clothes. Everything would be taken care of for you.”
“Yes, you’re right,” Julio replied.
The judges agreed. Julio even got a job. For eight years, he was the handyman for a military commander who lived in Abraão. At that time, the commander was in charge of transferring prisoners to Ilha Grande. “I had to leave my companheiros to do this job,” Julio says. He even cooked meals when important officials visited Abraão until, finally, the warden offered him a position as a cook at the Cândido Mendes prison. Julio fed 1,000 inmates a day.
Even though he was not locked up any more, Julio still had to enter the prison every day. He had to protect himself from daily violence, which eventually descended into chaos.
On March 31, 1964, a military coup led by the Marshall Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco overthrew President João Goulart and installed a harsh and repressive dictatorship. Political prisoners arrived at Ilha Grande en masse. Among them were famous names, such as journalist and politician Fernando Gabeiro and activists Luiz Carlos Prestes and Agildo Barato. Some even tried to get close to Julio, hoping to curry favor with the warden. “I met them all. They were kind of dependent on me, because I was the one who fed them. I wanted no business with them, though, because I was already collaborating with management.”
By the late 1970s, the Cândido Mendes’ political prisoners had gathered and organized, laying down their own rules and allying with violent criminals. The prison spawned one of Brazil’s deadliest crime syndicates, the Falange Vermelha (Portuguese for Red Phalanx), better known today as Comando Vermelho. “They were very hard with the staff. … The population changed,” says Hotair de Silva, one of the last guards in Cândido Mendes and an old friend of Julio’s. Hotair, too, still lives in Ilha Grande.
Tension kept building up within the penitentiary’s walls, and in 1979, the Comando Vermelho launched a raid against its main rival, the Falange Jacaré. Armed with knives and spikes made out of razor blades, they rioted and, amid the mayhem, forced the guards to open the cells of the Jacaré members. They entered as many cells as they could, slitting the throats of every man along their way. Eight prisoners died. Their operation was methodical, and it only lasted a few minutes. The next moment, the assassins were back in their blocks as though nothing had happened. Guards came around to gather the bodies.
“I was in their warden’s home when hell broke loose,” Julio says. “The guards could not keep the men separated. I was asked to take the dead bodies out and bury them.”
The year 1985 ended in spectacular fashion at Cândido Mendes. On Dec. 31, Jose Carlos dos Reis Encina, aka Escadinha, or The Stairs, escaped from the penitentiary. Escadinha was 29 when he went to Cândido Mendes for robbing banks, trafficking drugs and murder. Until Escadinha, most believed the jungle dash to the sea was the only way to flee the Devil’s Cauldron, but his escape was more creative. That day, his wife arrived, and the couple used their visitation time to go for a stroll around the prison yard. A helicopter landed next to Mr. and Mrs. dos Reis Encina. They simply boarded it and flew away.
A year later, as the dictatorship was coming to an end, the prison was sinking into a quicksand of violence and corruption — and the building was falling into disrepair. Drug use and gambling, which at one time were strictly forbidden, now greased a prison economy. Comando Vermelho had installed a climate of terror.
In 1993, photographer André Cypriano spent eight months documenting the inmates and wrote a book, Caldeirão do Diablo. “In the past, the dining hall had tables and chairs. Everything was destroyed during the riots, so the prisoners had to eat standing up,” he wrote. Cypriano captured an image of a one-armed man standing in the dining hall, eating his lunch. He also published photos of the kitchen’s decrepit walls, the bullet holes in the ceilings, the porn that decorated the cells and portraits — including Julio’s — of the men who lived there.
In this era, the prison earned its final nicknames: abandonada, maldita. Abandoned, cursed.
“All this led to the gradual dismantling of the site,” says Gelsom Rozentino, a professor at Rio de Janeiro State University. In 1994, the government shuttered the Cândido Mendes penitentiary. When it closed, the inmates and guards were transferred to other prisons around Brazil.
Their families were also forced to relocate. Farming activity plummeted, and the houses once occupied by the colonios livres were all destroyed. Residents cried when the prison closed because it was their livelihood; inmates cultivated their land. Julio was paroled, and for the first time in decades the prison chef was unemployed.
In winter, the streets of Dois Rios, the village near the prison, are empty. Ivy and moss shroud abandoned buildings. Near to the soccer field, the carcass of a rusted tractor lingers on the ground, not far from a pile of scrap.
There are no tourist attractions here in this part of Ilha Grande. Most travelers brave enough to embark on the two-hour walk to Dois Rios do it for the beach. Still soaking in their bathing suits, the curious ones visit the old prison before returning to their hotel.
Last year, Ilha Grande’s last prisoner was finally set free. “That’s it. I even signed the papers and everything,” Julio says.
On the porch of his tiny blue house, Julio thinks silently. He never even considered leaving Ilha Grande, in spite of all the terrible memories that occupy it. “I have a normal life here, and I need nothing,” he says. Still on parole, he decided to stick around. He lives with Zindoca, whom he married 30 years ago, and their three children. Julio met her when Brazil was still under a dictatorship. She used to come to Dois Rios to visit her brother, who was doing time there. One day, she got lost on her way to the visiting room, and Julio helped her find her way.
After Julio lost his job at the prison, he began crafting nets for the local fishermen. When he isn’t fishing, Julio spends time sculpting wood with the tools that lay on the floor of his workshop, placing his artworks on the porch for all to see. He carves only two kinds of things: bizarre, abstract objects and boats. “I make the same boat I used to escape,” he explains. Julio is holding one of his small boats now and says a few words about each of them. In fact, it’s been awhile since he’s sculpted anything besides boats. When we ask him why, he answers cryptically.
“I have many things in my head.”