Overcrowding, violence and neglect: the tragedy in Brazilian prisons

Brasil Observer - Feb 07 2017
Manaus - Mesmo com a suspensão das visitas aos detentos Complexo Penitenciário Anísio Jobim (COMPAJ), familiares formam filas para tentar entregar alimentos e roupas (Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil)
Even with the suspension of visits to inmates at the Anísio Jobim Penitentiary Complex in Manaus, Amazon State, family members queued up on January 12 to try to deliver food and clothing (Photo: Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil)

(Leia em Português)


Brazil begins 2017 with a wave of rebellions from north to south of the country. The dead are over a hundred already


By Wagner de Alcântara Aragão

A pressure cooker about to explode: a valid metaphor to illustrate the situation of the Brazilian prison system at the beginning of 2017. From the earliest days of the year until the time of writing, there were more than 100 dead in rebellions in penitentiaries in seven states.

From the north to the south of the country, in family conversations, in bars, at the fair, in the bank queue, at bus stops the feeling is that the situation is uncontrollable. The pessimistic, fatalistic tone prevails on such wheels of conversation. Not for less. The shock is not only because of the rebellions, nor because of the number of them, which is still frightening. It’s mainly because of the violence, the cruelty of riots.

Photographs and videos show decapitated men, quartered bodies, if not charred. They reveal penitentiaries under the absolute domination of factions. They confirm overcrowded, unhealthy environments, far from being places of detention for criminals. The images present cages which, instead of recovering human beings, punish them for their mistakes, transform them into postgraduates in crime, into irrational beasts.

It contributes to the general desolation the position of the rulers. In the wake of the rebellions, there have been reports of corruption in penitentiary administrations. Secretaries of State, ministers, governors and the President of the Republic, when they are not omitted, sink – and drown the country – in unreasonable statements (and decisions).

President Michel Temer, for example, only manifested himself in the face of the killing of prisoners three days after the first rebellion that started the riot in Manaus (Amazon), which broke out on the second day of the year. Minimizing the facts, he described the brutality as a “frightful accident”. The following uprisings – in Roraima, Rio Grande do Norte, Minas Gerais, Ceará, São Paulo, Pernambuco and Paraná – proved that it was not just an “accident”. It is an absolute chaos.

It was also the statement of the then National Secretary of Youth of the Temer Government, Bruno Júlio, revealed by the newspaper O Globo. The minister, who is directly linked to the Presidency of the Republic and should be based on humanitarian principles, defended the ongoing killing in prisons. “I’m kind of pissed about it. I’m the son of a police officer, I think it had to kill more.” After these astonishing words and the natural criticism he received for saying them, Bruno Júlio resigned.



Meanwhile, Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes and authorities responsible for the administration of state prisons have sought to reject evidence that Brazilian prisons are under the control of factions such as Comando Vermelho (CV), Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), Amigos dos Amigos (ADA) and Família do Norte.

Worse, they continue to deny that prisons have become a square of war between these factions, which, moreover, control businesses outside the grids (gas stations, transportation co-operatives, drug trafficking, among others).

For experts in the field, minimizing the power of these factions does not solve the problem. Denying the seriousness of the situation is to sign a certificate stating that the State is incompetent. This omission has allowed the factions, previously concentrated on the Rio-São Paulo axis, to spread throughout the country, expanding and intensifying the dispute between them.

The PCC itself, protagonist of the current wave of rebellions, when it was constituted more than two decades ago, was restricted to São Paulo. As they were promoting rebellions, their members were being transferred to units in other states, and settling in, branching out.



There are no signs that the crisis will be resolved any time soon. The measures announced so far – the use of the National Security Force and the creation of a “national prison intervention group” to fight riots in progress – are sounding more like palliative actions. Between the announcement of such measures and the effective implementation of them the killing and the escapes follow in mass.

The use of the National Security Force, for example, was decided by the government on January 18, but only at the end of the month did members of the Army, Navy and Air Force come into action. “The [Armed Forces] men will be available to the governors to search for weapons, drugs, cell phones and other illicit substances and products,” the Defence Minister Raul Jungmann told reporters.

Public security experts and lawyers have fallen behind on the role of the Armed Forces in civil and urban disturbances, such as the rebellions in prisons. Ostensible public security is the duty of the federation units and their police forces – the use of the Armed Forces is questioned because Army, Navy and Air Force personnel are prepared to fight with external enemies in situations of warlike conflicts. In deviation from function, there is a great risk of committing excesses. President Michel Temer, in a public statement, argued that the men of the Armed Forces will not contact rebels. “[The Forces] will evidently have no contact with the prisoners, but will have, yes, the possibility of inspection in all Brazilian prisons.”



As if seeking to respond to the frightened society, the Ministry of Justice also announced a set of objectives and measures to compose a National Public Security Plan. In theory, the plan speaks of three basic purposes: “reduction of homicides; the integrated fight against international organized crime (in particular drug and arms trafficking) and organized crime inside and outside prisons; and the rationalization and modernization of the penitentiary system”.

One has to backtrack about the feasibility and effectiveness of such a plan announced in the heat of national dread. First, because the plan places a lot of emphasis on security forces operations, ignoring that public violence stems primarily from social problems such as economic inequality, unemployment, lack of prospects. Second, because one has to ask how a government that has done everything, and was able to approve in Congress, a constitutional amendment that freezes public investments for 20 years, can now support a plan that obviously requires extraordinary financial resources.

In addition, the current tsunami of riots in Brazilian prisons is more than a conjectural crisis, to be solved with punctual measures, in the evaluation of specialists and entities such as the Pastoral Carcerária, of the National Confederation of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB). It is, in fact, the result of the bankruptcy of the country’s prison system.

In a statement released on 24 March, the Prison Ministry reports “systematic violation of rights” in penitentiaries, the background of violence now opened in the rebellions that have been taking place since January. “The main product of the Brazilian prison system has always been and continues to be death, indignity and violence,” said the note. “This massacre has been going on for some time.”

The Prison Ministry continues: “In underestimated figures provided by the penitentiary administrations, at least 379 people died violently in the dungeons of the country in 2016, without any ‘crisis’ being publicly announced by the national authorities. Lack of warnings or ‘recommendations’ that persons deprived of their liberty ceased to be dead and vilified in their dignity.”



The United Nations (UN), in a report released in August 2015, warned of the risks of an explosion in the Brazilian prison system. Inspections by the UN Human Rights Council pointed out that the practice of torture in detention was “endemic”, as was the overcrowding of jails. The prison population has grown rapidly in recent decades, making Brazil the fourth country in the world in number of inmates. The increase in the prison population was not, however, accompanied by the expansion of the system infrastructure.

Now in January, the UN High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), in the face of a wave of riots in Brazilian prisons, reaffirmed this assessment of the chaos of Brazil’s prison system. Amerigo Incalcaterra, South America’s regional representative, in an official statement condemned the ongoing massacres, calling for “an immediate investigation of the facts, with a view to assigning responsibility for the action and omission of the State, which is primarily responsible for the prisoners in their custody.”

The UN representative said: “The lack of implementation of a prison policy in accordance with international human rights standards in Brazil has been repeatedly pointed out by United Nations bodies, leading to a growing crisis in the prison system in the country. This crisis is evidenced by recent episodes of massacres.”