Crisis in the Prison System: the problem with brazilian prisons

Hyper-incarceration hinders state control over prisons and hampers any initiatives for the re-socialisation of prisoners

After one year of planning, 110 prisoners decided to put their escape plan into action while they were collecting firewood outside the prison. One of the soldiers who was accompanying them was killed, while the other three were tied to trees. Back inside the penitentiary, the prisoners broke into the weapons store and, armed with rifles, muskets, machine guns and revolvers, they opened all the pavilions. More than a hundred people died in the confrontation that lasted sixteen hours.

For a long time the rebellion on Anchieta Island in Ubatuba (SP), in 1952 was considered to be the biggest prison revolt in the country. The complex, known as the ‘Brazilian Alcatraz’ closed in 1955 and the island is now a state park. The ruins of the prison colony, still standing, are more of a reminder than the story of the massacre itself, that the Brazilian prison system has probably never been a model one, and that the cracks in it are the very same ones as seen in the structural flaws that have always been a part of the society.

According to the Conectas lawyer, Henrique Apolinário, a member of the CNPCT (National Committee for the Prevention and Combat of Torture), the massacres currently taking place in the Brazilian prison system cannot be labelled a crisis. “They are a facet of the chronic failure of the system, marked by the everyday violence which anyone who is deprived of liberty in the country is subjected to.” He explained. “In recent decades, Brazil has gone through a period of hyper-incarceration. The state has perfected its legal and security forces in order to target the most vulnerable people.”

According to Apolinário, this hyper-incarceration hinders the state’s control over prisons and hampers any initiatives for the re-socialisation of prisoners, so that control over life in these places is handed over to criminal organisations who become stronger in the process.

The most recent National Survey of Penitentiary Data (Infopen), of June 2017, shows that the prison population grew an average of 7.1% a year. The number of prisoners, jumped from 232 thousand in 2000 to 726 thousand in 2017. According to the National Justice Council (CNJ) Database for Monitoring Prisons, there are 812,564 prisoners in the country, in 2019. This is the third greatest prison population in the world, behind the USA and China, moreover, 41.5% of these prisoners (337,126) are still awaiting conviction.

Drugs Law, mass incarceration and racism

The tightening of the Drugs Law, the lack of criteria to differentiate between traffic and personal use and structural racism only worsen the situation. According to Infopen, the majority of prisoners are made up of: young, black or brown men with poor levels of education. Theft and drug trafficking are the main reasons for imprisonment.

“No other country is investing so much in incarceration and on such a frightening scale as Brazil. These are young, poor, usually black men, with no previous convictions, who are caught in the act of dealing in illicit substances, unarmed, who do not commit any act of violence and who are not linked to organised crime. But we try to redress this lack of connection with our brilliant policy, by throwing these young people into the depths of hell, to live alongside people who already have a criminal career.” Said the Anthropologist and Specialist in public security Luiz Eduardo Soares, in the documentary “Sem Pena”. According to Soares, this country is setting its own time bomb. “We spend 1500 a month on making each one of them worse.”

In Eugênio Puppo’s documentary, that investigates flaws in the prison system, a former military police officer says that he changed his point of view after he was sent to prison for tampering with cars. “When a military police officer is ready he comes out like a harnessed animal. He comes out blindfold and they say you have to do this because criminals are animals. It’s not true.” He said. “That there [the prison] is a university. There are guys in there who have stolen a bottle of shampoo and others have who robbed a bank. They’re both held on the same landing. The justice system needs to review concepts about who lives alongside who.”

Prisoner in the Pedrinhas Prison Complex shows burn marks on his back. According to the prisoner, the wound was caused by hot water thrown by the police officer who arrested him. São Luís (MA) – Brazil.

According to the imprisoned former military police officer, prison data presented to the Secretary for Public Security contributed to the gaps in the system. “I know that a trafficker is going to give me 200 thousand [as a bribe] if I arrest him. So I arrest him, get the 200 thousand and let him go. Then there is this poor guy who is selling five cocaine capsules. I catch him instead of the trafficker and send him to prison to comply with the statistics.”

With a large workforce and little respect for human rights it comes as no surprise that criminal factions have been growing to the point of spreading into a number of penitentiary complexes in Brazil, using uprisings and rebellions as weapons for negotiation and pressure.

Article 13 of the foundation statute of the First Capital Command (PCC) states that: “We must be united and organised in order to avoid another massacre, like or worse than the one at the Detention Centre [in Carandiru, in 1992] (…). This massacre is one that will never be forgotten by Brazilian society. Because we at the Command are going to shake the system and make authorities change inhuman prison practices, that are riddled with injustice, oppression, torture and prison massacres.”

Women’s prisons in Brazil

The situation is no different for the female population. In her book “Presos que Menstruam” (Prisoners who Menstruate), the Journalist Nana Queiroz highlights that women are treated in exactly the same way as men in prisons, in other words, they have to learn to adapt to having no toilet paper, sanitary towels, smear tests or pre-natal care. According to Queiroz, in addition to a lack of respect for human rights and lack of dignity, the struggle of prisoners in Brazil is also for hygiene. Many women use bread as tampons. 

The Lawyer, Henrique Apolinário also recalled that the architecture of detention centres follows the model of men’s centres, with no maternity wings, for example. “Investment in renovating these environments is often unnecessary, as the vast majority of the women should not be in prison. We should remember current legislation, underpinned by an STF decision, that provides for the release of mothers and pregnant women, as well as the possibility of alternative sentences for low level trafficking.” He explained.

According to a study by the Diretoria de Análise de Políticas de Públicas at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV DAPP) there was an increase of 700% in the number of women in prison between 2000 and 2016, most of whom (28%) are in prison for drug trafficking and 45% are awaiting conviction.

Foreign prison systems

The world’s powerful nations are not much different in their treatment of prisoners. In the USA, where the war on drugs policy is prevalent, the country’s prison system is made up of private prisons and it has the largest prison population in the world. The nation that ranks second is China, where prisoners were sent to forced labour camps until 2013.

In 1975, the French Philosopher Michel Foucault warned about the problem of penitentiary complexes, in his book “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison”: “Prisons do not diminish the crime rate: you can increase them, multiply them or transform them, the number of crimes and criminals will be stable, or worse still will increase (…) prison, consequently, instead of returning corrected individuals to freedom, releases dangerous delinquents into society.” By incarcerating the poor, passing judgments based on common sense and disrespecting human rights, the state is revealing its most barbaric side and is showing that the concept of security it proposes is no more than a persistent illusion. 

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