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Brazil's prison problems

Jan D. Walter / dc
August 27, 2014

A recent bloody prison riot in Brazil is not an isolated incident. Violent outbreaks occur regularly in Brazilian penitentiaries. Criminal gangs and the justice system are to blame.

Prison inmates on a Roof in Cascavel
Image: Marcelino Duarte/AFP/Getty Images

The fact that Brazilian newspapers filed their stories about the prison riot in Cascavel under "Cotidiano" or "Daily News" speaks volumes. On Sunday morning, a group of prisoners overpowered their guards during breakfast, taking two of them hostage. A majority of the more than 1,000 inmates joined in the revolt.

During the course of the following day, the prisoners negotiated with the authorities. On Tuesday, they freed their hostages and returned the badly damaged prison to officials. Most of the prisoners were transferred to other facilities.

Frequent uprisings

Deadly violence is not a rarity in Brazilian prisons. State attorney Bruno Shimizu estimates that 40 prisoners are killed by security staff each year. That's not including violence between prisoners. At the start of 2014, a series of murders stretching over months at a prison in Sao Luis in northern Brazil came to light after the "Folha de Sao Paulo" newspaper received a video showing the decapitated corpses of several inmates.

In Cascavel, two inmates were decapitated, and a further three were thrown from the prison's roof, falling 12 meters to their deaths. Was it a punishment for inmates seen as traitors, or an act of revenge on members of an enemy gang? It seems likely that a prison gang was behind the uprising, in part because the rioters hoisted banners printed with the words "peace, justice, freedom."

Prisoners arms extend from behind a jail cell
Prison gangs wield considerable power in Brazil's penetentiariesImage: CNJ

Organized inmates use pressure tactics

That's the slogan of the PCC, the Primero Comando da Capital, a prison gang formed in the 1990s in a high-security facility near Sao Paulo. The gang formed as a result of the brutal crackdown on a revolt in the notorious Carandiru prison in 1992, during which security guards killed 111 rioting inmates. As was the case in Cascavel, the PCC campaigned for better prison conditions, although control of other inmates was also always a part of its mission.

Today, the PCC has more than 11,000 members (about three-quarters of whom are imprisoned) and is one of Brazil's most powerful criminal organizations. Bank robberies, kidnapping and ransom as well as drug trafficking abroad are among the activities coordinated by the gang's bosses from their prison cells.

Stricter sentences and tougher conditions inspire the gangsters to retaliate against the police and civilians. In 2006, 150 people were killed during a confrontation with police in Sao Paulo. In Sao Luis, as well, buses were set alight when the police tightened safety measures, just as was the case in Cascavel. Cooperation between the authorities and the gangsters is also nothing new. The riots in Sao Paulo, for example, ended suddenly following a meeting of the gang bosses and high-ranking police and government officials.

Draconian regime supports the state

"Prisons in Brazil do not solve the problem with crime; they make it worse," said political scientist Camila Nunes Dias of the Brazilian University, ABC. One of the basic problems is overcrowding. More than half a million people are currently imprisoned in Brazil in facilities designed to accommodate just 300,000. According to reports, only half of the nation's prisons have enough beds for all of their inmates.

Under such conditions, the state is losing its control over the prisons. A power vacuum has resulted - one that groups such as the PCC are ready to fill, said Nunes Dias. She says it might seem paradoxical, but in this way, the gangs and the state have become partners. "Without the law of the gangs, it would be impossible for the state to keep so many inmates in such inhumane conditions," she explained.

A Brazilian prison shown from outside
Poor conditions in Brazilian prisons exacerbate criminalityImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Brazil is not alone

The reasons for the overcrowding can be found mainly in Brazilian criminal law, which sees imprisonment as practically the only method of punishment, said Atila Roque, head of Amnesty International Brazil. But the justice system is also to blame, he said: "Forty percent of inmates in Brazil are stuck in detention awaiting trial, and many of them spend more time here than their entire sentence amounts to." The slow pace has resulted in the number of inmates growing four-fold since 1992.

Brazil is not the only country dealing with such developments. The situation in other Latin American countries is hardly any better - with the exception of a few Caribbean islands, prisons in all of the countries of this region are similarly overcrowded. And the results are comparable.

Once a prison gang has formed, it is next to impossible to dissolve, said Nunes Dias. The only way to do so is for society and the state to take away its recruits by fighting the poverty that leads to crime, and by reforming the justice system.