What is behind Brazil’s prison crisis?
Just three weeks into January 2017 at least 138 inmates in Brazil’s prisons had been murdered. The deaths happened during mass rebellions in three separate states, all linked to drug gangs operating inside the penitentiaries.
On 1 January, 56 inmates in Manaus’s Anísio Jobim prison were killed, their bodies found mutilated and decapitated. The following day, a second rebellion occurred inside the prison, resulting in the deaths of a further four prisoners.
Another 33 inmates were killed on 6 January in a state penitentiary in the neighbouring Northeastern state of Roraima. On 14 January, 26 more people died in Alcaçuz state prison. The rebellion resulted in a 13 -hour stand off between prisoners, guards and police. Over two weeks later authorities are still struggling to secure the facility.
State authorities attributed these massacres to warring drug gangs within the prisons, who are vying for control of smuggling routes. During each of these rebellions, prisoners climbed on to the roofs, wielding makeshift knives and waving flags bearing the initials of rival drug gangs.
Shortly after the uprisings in Alcaçuz, Brazilian president Michel Temer guaranteed the presence of National Armed Forces in each of the three affected states on 17 January to secure the prison populations.
The unrest has already begun to spill out into public spaces. In reaction to the transfer of certain prisoners, gang members in Natal, the town that houses the Alcaçuz prison, set fire to several of the town’s buses. This led local bus companies to suspend their services and residents to navigate their own ways to and from work.
The war on drugs
Although further rebellions have taken place in states across the country in the last week, they have not been as lethal and the death toll remains steadily at around 140. But Claudio do Prado Amaral, a judge in Brazil’s criminal court, criminal law professor at the University of São Paulo and coordinator of the university’s Applied Carcerial Studies research, said he expects things to get worse.
‘Things will continue as they are over the next few months, or they will worsen because the country is not making any changes to the structure of the system,’ he said.
Overcrowding, Amaral said, is one of the results of structural problems faced by prisons in Brazil, which have an average occupancy rate of 157 per cent. Of the facilities where uprisings occurred this month, Roraima’s Boa Vista prison had 1,400 inmates in a space built for just under 700. Meanwhile, Manaus’s Anísio Jobim held almost three times its capacity, with 1,200 inmates, and Natal’s Alcaçuz facility held over 1,000 but was constructed for a population of 600.
Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil
According to senior Human Rights Watch researcher César Muñoz, who specializes in public security and prison conditions in Brazil, overcrowding is linked anti-drug policies which in turn feed trafficking gangs. Between 2008 and 2014, Brazil’s prison population grew by 33 per cent to more than 600,000 after a change to anti-drug laws in 2006. Currently, Brazil has the world’s fourth largest prison population, 28 per cent of whom were convicted on drug-related charges.
‘The dynamics are really complicated – for example, the guards will ask new detainees which gang they belong to when they arrive, and they will be placed in facilities that are divided by gangs,’ Muñoz said. ‘That’s very dangerous, because what happens if you go in and you are not a member of a gang? There’s a big incentive to enter a gang to protect yourself.’
All three prisons where rebellions include inmates from the São Paulo-based First Capital Commands (PCC) group and Amazonas-based Northern Family (FDN), who have also gained notoriety in recent years. While the PCC has historically had more clashes with Rio gang the Red Command (CV), it is thought that a potential change in the PCC and CV’s arrangements led to the current disagreement with the FDN.
‘This war is for the hegemony of the drug trade,’ state prosecutor and specialist in the PCC gang Lincoln Gakiya told the New York Times after the first two rebellions. ‘The prison system is not prepared for this gang war.’
Not enough money, not enough space
There is historical lack of funding for Brazil's overcrowded prisons. This was one of the catalysts in the recent waves of violence: after the massacres on 1 and 2 January, the Anísio Jobim prison requested scanners, electronic tags and devices which block mobile phone signals inside prisons, implying a lack of basic resources. In December 2016, to combat growing crime rates, the federal government moved funds from its penitentiary to its public security budget. However, in response to January’s crisis, Brazil’s federal government created a new national security plan and promised to reallocate R$32,000 ($10,000 USD) to states to help them secure their prison population and transfer prisoners involved in the massacres.
Security Minister Alexandre de Moraes said that funds will also be used to construct five new prisons across the country, creating an extra 25,000 spaces – although this is just 10 per cent of the estimated 250,000 that the country needed in 2014.
There is increasing frustration with the situation. On 25 January , seven members of the National Council of Criminal and Penitentiary Policy of the Ministry of Justice and Citizenship resigned from their positions. Within their joint resignation letter, members criticized budgetary rearrangements made in December 2016 that would take funds away from the state penitentiary budget and allocate them to national security instead.
Members cited bureaucracy as a barrier to creating productive policy, but emphasised that adding force would not help to confront ‘a social problem with the prisons”’. The members said that the current situation ‘is the result of the country’s congenital incapacity to deal with its penitentiary units and the internal factions that appear as a byproduct of the prison chaos itself.’
No help for ex-convicts
In addition to Brazil's structural problems with government bodies and within the prisons, Amaral points to two further points of weakness with penitentiary policies: reintegration after release, and a lack of co-operation between state and federal departments in providing accurate data on prisoners.
While states like Minas Gerais have successful, long-running resocialisation schemes within prisons to improve inmates’ education and work prospects, Amaral explained that there is no federally-integrated policy. More worryingly, there is little to nothing done to help re-integrate inmates when they leave prison and there is an estimated 70 per cent re-offending rate.
For both Amaral and Muñoz, access to integrated, better quality information would be the most significant catalyst for changing Brazil’s prison systems.
‘With transparency – if you had accurate, good quality data available to the public – a lot of these deaths would not occur,’ said Amaral. ‘This lack of information, and the precariousness of the information shared by different federal and state departments, impedes decisions and is problematic.’
Between the violence, overcrowding and drug factions operating within its prisons, and the structural and bureaucratic problems surrounding its penitentiary policies, Brazil has some way to go before it regains stability within its prisons. But with growing crime rates outside prisons too, the country must act with some urgency if it is to prevent further deaths and more violence from spilling out into the streets.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.