Brazilian Prisons Experience Violent Riots Again, Leaving 55 Dead

Violent riots within various Brazilian prisons have led to multiple casualties, yet again. On Sunday, May 26th, 15 inmates were found dead at the Anisio Jobim penitentiary, with many of the bodies reportedly showing signs of strangulation and stab wounds from sharpened toothbrushes. On Monday, another 40 bodies were recovered across three other prions in the city of Manaus, many of which were reported to show signs of suffocation.

The region’s Governor, Wilson Lima, said that although the violence is still under investigation, he believes the riots were the result of clashes amongst rival factions within the drug gang known as Família do Norte, or Family of the North. The simultaneous occurrence of the killings across multiple prisons supports the assumption that the riots involved the setting of scores between gang members. Lima commented that 200 inmates who could potentially be targeted have been separate and placed under protection. Justice Minister Sergio Moro has also approved the transfer of several known gang leaders to maximum security federal facilities.

Many of the victims were killed in front of family members during visiting hours. The mother of one inmate described the event to The Rio Times as “total chaos”. “Everyone started to run, and everyone was pounding on the cell gates, at the doors and running down the corridors”, she said.

Human rights groups have blamed the government for facilitating these clashes by allowing cells to become extremely overcrowded. According to one group, Conectas, the Anísio Jobim penitentiary has the capacity for 454 prisoners but was holding more than double that when the violence began on Sunday. The Brazilian criminal justice system is also restricted by massive shortages in staff. In Manaus, which is the capital of the country’s northern Amazonas state, there is only one judge and two prosecutors responsible for handling as many as 17,000 cases per year and inspecting the state’s eight prisons.

The Mayor of Manaus, Arthur Virgílio Neto, admitted that the state had lost control and that there was ongoing open warfare between rival gangs. The federal government announced that it will deploy a penitentiary intervention task force made up of some 100 federal penal authorities and federal police to assist. There are already hundreds of troops stationed in Amazonas, many of them deployed there after the prison riots of 2017.

The prison riots that occurred in early 2017 caused the deaths of almost 100 inmates. 56 of these people were killed in one of the same prisons subject to this week’s attacks, the Anísio Jobim Penitentiary Complex. The violence was attributed to the disputes between the Família do Norte gang and the Primeiro Comando da Capital, who were fighting over control of the prison system and cocaine trade. These riots urged calls for the federal government to tackle the systemic failures in the country’s prison system. An official investigation into the 2017 Amazonas riots concluded that the violence was enabled by the local penal authorities, as many of them knew about the planned rebellion, but failed to notify the state authorities.

Brazil has the world’s third-largest prison population, with the number of total inmates reaching over 704,000 people. This figure is almost twice the amount of available cell space of just under 416,000, which leads to the extent of the severe overcrowding and inhumane conditions. The complexities of the power struggle between gangs, combined with the high levels of crime and the significance of the overcrowding of inmates are furthered by Prime Minster Jair Bolsonaro’s tough on crime approach to establish an extremely dire image of the realities of the current Brazilian prison system.

Laura O'Dwyer