Picking the wound of Brazil’s dire prison system

BRAZILIAN PRISONS ARE an out-dated deposit for human beings, and imprisonment has more to do with persecution than crime rates. With arbitrary arrests that use the World Cup as excuse, the country re-opens the issue.

 The 7×1 by Germany is the smallest reason why Brazilians should be embarrassed. In the final weekend of the World Cup, a legal anomaly made national news: 60 preventive arrests were carried out using “possible future crimes” against protesters, family members and even guests present in their homes at the time.  By violating the constitutional principle that all are innocent until proven guilty, it was considered by some as an authoritarian measure. However, the ongoing issue dug into a larger problem: the abysmal conditions of the country’s penal system. Without going to trial and no jail to be held, those arrested were taken to Bangú Prison (Rio de Janeiro), one of the most feared penitentiary complexes in the country.

Debate about the national justice system is increasingly necessary. Easy solutions have been launched aimlessly, but mostly boil down to increasing violence against the offender, making more arrests, removing rights referred to as privileges and extending penalties. ​But being tough on crime ignores certain vulnerabilities and is based on a series of flawed assumptions.


Discussing crime often involves the claim that there are not enough prisons in the country; there are too many laws that
protect criminals; penal age should be lowered; and, occasionally, that the right to a fair trial is “kindness towards the bad guy”. ​However, statistics issued by the InfoPen database and the National Council of Justice (CNJ) point out that the lack of arrests is simply not real. Moreover, data suggests that ​the inhuman​ conditions means that, instead of resocializing, penitentiaries actually “breed” criminals.​

In 2012, InfoPen indicated a prison population of 548 thousand inmates. The number presented by Depen (National Penitentiary Department) is 563.7 thousand. Of these, 195 thousand are on temporary situation, that is, those who – like the protestors – have not yet been convicted and should not be imprisoned. There are another 22 thousand inmates which, according to CNJ, have already served their sentences and should have been released. In other words: almost 40% of Brazilian inmates should not be in prison in the first place.​


A task force led by CNJ in 2011 spelled out the problems that accompany this scenario. Between manning and excessive sentences, there is unnecessary suffering caused by the poor conditions, such as diseases and forced labour, not established by court. According to official data processed by Thiago Reis and Clara Velasco for the G1 news portal, there is a deficit of 200.2 thousand vacancies, considering the system is able to handle only 363.5 thousand people. Although claims of insufficient arrests exist, the number of prisoners in Brazil has grown exponentially over the past 20 years, from 126 thousand to nearly 564 thousand imprisoned between 1993 and 2013.

So what does this mean, in global terms? Brazil has the fourth largest prison population in the world, only behind US (2 million prisoners), China (1.6 million prisoners) and Russia (780 thousand). This cannot be a good indicator, as  two of these are authoritarian regimes, the remainder being a largely privatized system with the largest penal population on the planet. It is worth mentioning the US maintains life imprisonment for recidivates (recurring offenders) in many states, in addition to a privatised system that strengthens lobbying to expand the use of deprivation of freedom instead of alternative punishment. “The model is outdated”, argues Humberto Fabretti, professor of criminal law and criminology at the Mackenzie Presbyterian University, in a column in Jornal do Brasil. “No one seems aware of the paradox that you want to re-socialize somebody away from society,” he says.

Inspections performed by the National Council of Public Prosecutors (CNMP), entity responsible for investigating abuses by public bodies, revealed that prisons serve as schools for crime. Those charged with minor felonies receive the same treatment as those accused of heinous crimes. According to the agency, out of the 1.598 prisons to receive the inspection, 79% mix temporary and definitive prisoners; 67% mix people who are serving sentences in different regimes (open, semi-open, closed); and almost 78% mix first-time and repeat offenders. In 68% of the sites, there is no separation by dangerousness or according to the offense committed. In 65%, gang members are not separated.


Imprisonment, violence and socialization

The treatment of prisoners is often uneven. In the prison of Grajaú, “imprisoned employees” took over administrative routines, while in Pavuna (both in Rio de Janeiro), “internal security” has been passed on to the detainees as a measure to save investments on prison guards. In both cases, as in many other unofficial agreements between staff and prisoners, the “employees” received perks that included air-conditioning, refrigerators and televisions, while the rest of prisoners huddled in overcrowded and filthy cells.

Last May, Amnesty International released the global campaign “Stop Torture”, result from a survey of countries where torture remains as a State practice. In Brazil, about 80% of the population is afraid of being arrested and tortured. Alexandre Ciconello, chairperson for the NGO, called state governments’ discourse on the practice “hypocritical”. “Some truly embrace torture as policy, others make the speech that are against torture, but in practice do not restrain it, or, when they do, it is in a very shy way”, he stated. In response, José Eduardo Cardozo, justice minister since 2011, admitted that the prison system in the country is “on an almost medieval situation.”

As pointed out by the joint effort by CNJ, the treatment of prisoners in Brazil involves a series systematized acts of violence that often make the rehabilitation of the inmate impossible. Governmental disregard towards prisoners paved the way for prisons to become the playfield of organized crime groups One such group is the infamous Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC); dealing in drugs, prostitution and kidnappings, coordinating the action from inside jail, the PCC was responsible for a series of 250 attacks in 2006, that left 128 dead – since then, the group has been involved in multiple prisoner rebellions.

Often, newbies are required to join one of the gangs formed inside the detention facility in exchange for a minimum level of security, not offered by the state. In numbers: there were at least 218 killings last year alone. Official reports by the prison system represent the average of one death every two days. Frequent cases of violence against detainees include beatings, torture and even executions, both by prison officers and criminal factions. The intent is to intimidate the rest of the prisoners through example. Sexual abuse and rape against inmates occur, often in group.



Even granted benefits can be delivered in a twisted fashion. Although conjugal (sexual) visits are allowed, this sometimes means harassment and intimidation against partners. In feminine facilities in particular, the deprivation of medical treatment is shocking, with inmates being handcuffed in the postpartum and prolonged isolation schemes are handed out without justifiable cause. Cells designed for four people frequently harbour fifteen. They are unventilated, subjected to excessive heat and painful cold, depending on season and region. Inmates sleep crammed on the floor, often filthy, many times over the hole that serves as a toilet. All problems which, admittedly, are not restricted to Brazil.

Unsanitary hygiene conditions are standard, not the exception. So is the lack of health material. In some cases, the task force encountered wards in which medication expired more than five months before. Rats and cockroaches are regular company. Again, female prisons scare: one report says prisoners were using pieces of bread as tampons. It is also common that these cells, already inadequate for adults, also house their small children. According to a 2005 report by the University of Brasilia, there were 291 children living inside prisons – and while the CNJ didn’t supply a precise number, it’s 2013 report indicates the situation has worsened since then.

Still, population calls for a even more grotesque treatment due to a couple of factors. First, there is dehumanization of the offender. Secondly because the problem of repeated felonies – 70% for juvenile offenders (one of the largest in the world) and “mere” 50% for adults – is not usually seen as related to how he was brutalized in prison. Third, neither to how he is marginalized from society on release. And this comes from how inmates and criminals are portrayed in public imagination.

Social stigma

The argument to justify violence against the convict is very simplistic: it is deserved because of the people he harmed. But this is pretty emblematic if considered the actual felonies. There is a fixed idea that every criminal is violent, dangerous, irredeemable and, therefore, deserves abject violence. However, CNJ points that 65% of Brazilian inmates have not committed violent crimes – and, as mentioned earlier, nearly 200 thousand of them have not even been to court.

The situation is little different with female detainees: two thirds of the female prison population were arrested for drug related offenses, and according to Claúdia Priscila – director of a documentary about women in prison – these are often lesser offenses. “They generally play a secondary role in the drug trade, and do not represent a threat to society”, she explained to brazilian website PortoCultura. They often take the blame so to spare their partners from being charged. The end result of these arrests, she claims, are broken families.

Both in news media and in the entertainment industry, social factors of crime are ignored. The problem in reduced from a complex social factor to a mere question of character and personality. It is not social policies, lack of opportunities, drug addiction, discrimination or the parallel state formed in disadvantaged communities that leads young people in vulnerable situations to crime. It is “bad blood”; “lack of character”; “the easy way to get ahead”.

Low educational levels should, by law, be compensated while serving time. Education in prison is a constitutional right, and one of the cornerstones of the rehabilitation process. However, only 8.6% of prisoners are included in educational programs, and only a fifth of them work legally during the period, in apprenticeship programmes. In Brazil, every three worked days deduce one day from the total due time, and any remuneration is passed on to the detainee’s family.

Outside prison, being a former convict is synonymous with unemployment, as some employers ask for the criminal record of potential candidates. Many consider correct not hire ex-cons, because of believed security risks. The somewhat obvious result is poverty. According to the CNJ, 95% of prisoners are poor or very poor, mostly coming from favelas and illegal occupations – where government bodies are absent, except for episodes of repression. Of these, 65% have not completed primary education, which severely limits integration to the labour market and the possibility of livelihood.



What comes next

Aggravation is yet to come. Recently, Congresswoman Antônia Lúcia, from the Social Christian Party, has proposed an amendment to the constitution, which eliminates financial support granted to the families of inmates who have contributed to social security through taxes. The aid was established in 1988 in order to cover inmate’s children basic necessities. However, she argues this “promotes banditry”, suggesting it would be better to leave out in the open the family as an explicit additional punishment. Although this means another violation of the Constitution, by consciously harming innocents for crimes of others (in this case, the father or mother).

She argues that the aid would be passed on to the victim, who already receives compensation from the defendant and the State on demand. Support comes from the increasingly common phenomena: since the beginning of the year, there has been over 45 successful lynching attempts by organized civilian mobs dedicated to vigilante justice. More than 300 hundred attempted attacks have also been registered by police forces. In most cases, no evidence other than hearsay existed against the victims.

For all such instances, Fabretti urges caution. “The prisoners are entitled to fundamental rights, and sooner or later they return to society”. He also poses a reflection: “The question that arises is in which shape we want them back?”



Written By:

Pedro Leal is a freelance journalist, currently based in Wales. He wrote on human rights and social issues for Brazilian newspapers and news sites, working with minority rights and social inequality.

Scheila Silveira lives in the Brazil-Germany skybridge. She is a public affairs specialist working with sustainability, corporate social responsibility and social management.

Photo Credits: Jack Two, Osvaldoeaf, Blog do Milton Jung, Tanozzo


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