A two-day explosion of prison violence has left 55 inmates dead in Manaus, Brazil. The violence began on May 26 when 15 people were fatally strangled or stabbed at the Anísio Jobim prison complex, and spread the following day where another 40 people were killed at three nearby prisons. This violence is believed to be the result of tensions between gangs, and it reflects a larger problem of Brazil’s prison system where overcrowding has created an environment where gangs and organized crime flourish.
In response to the recent violent outbreak, the Brazilian government deployed a task force to help take control of the prisons, and plan to transfer some of the gang leaders in order to reduce tensions. Amazonas Governor Wilson Lima said that he “…just spoke to Justice Minister Sergio Moro and he is already sending a prison intervention team to the state of Amazonas to help us in the critical moment with a problem that is national: the problem with the prisons.” Justice Minister Sergio Moro tweeted “On our way, we will also make spots available in federal prisons to transfer the leaders involved in these massacres.” However, the justice minister has been criticized for his slow reaction. Elcina Lima, the mother of one of the victims said that “they knew everything that was going to happen – and it happened.”
Human rights groups have said that the Brazillian government doesn’t do enough to prevent violence in prisons. According to the Conectas human rights group, the Anísio Jobim prison has the capacity for 454 prisoners but had more than double that when the recent violence started. This is a theme for all of Brazil’s prison system, where there are nearly 800,000 inmates crammed in facilities with half that capacity. Prisons are overcrowded and have inhumane conditions, and a former justice minister once said that he would rather die than spend time in a Brazilian jail.
Unfortunately, violence in Brazil’s prisons is relatively common, with the homicide rate for inmates six times higher than the national average. Local journalist, Luciano Abreu, reported that “What we are seeing … is yet another day of terror in the Amazonas prison system,” referring to a similar massacre in January 2017 in which 120 inmates were killed. According to Robert Muggah, the research director at Brazil’s Igarapé Institute, said the latest round of killings is “a reminder to this government of the severity and complexity of the challenge they face…It underlines the fact that this is a problem that requires not just building more prisons or arresting more people, but rethinking approaches to reform entirely.”
There is a larger problem in the Brazilian prison system that can’t be solved by just reacting when violent incidents occur and then relocating a couple of prisoners. President Jair Bolsonaro’s tough-on-crime attitude and policies of stronger prison systems and tougher sentences have only made the overcrowding problems worse. On top of that, prisons suffer from shortages of staff, with judges and prosecutors being overwhelmed with caseloads. To have an effective change, Brazil needs to end the policy of mass incarceration. Similar to reforms that have been suggested in the United States, overcrowding could be dealt with by providing rehabilitation opportunities and decriminalizing drug offences. Undergoing prison reform is necessary to put an end to the overcrowded environment that allows gangs to gain power and to prevent violence like the recent massacre from being a commonplace event.