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In the beginning of 2017, Brazil experienced some of the worst prison violence the country has ever seen. It all began on news years day when approximately 56 inmates were murdered at the Anisio Jobim complex in Manaus, Amazonas as a result of a war between the Sao Paulo based First Capital Command (PCC), and a local Amazonian crime group Family of the North (FDN), according to The Independent. Five days later, the PCC retaliated, resulting in the death of another 33 inmates in Boa Vista, Roraima according to the Los Angeles Times. The violence didn’t stop here. Two weeks later, gang members at Alcacuz prison invaded another cell block occupied by a rival gang. Over a span of 48 hours, gang members attacked each other with knives and guns, decapitating many of their victims and setting fire to their bodies, resulting in the death of 10 prisoners according to the Los Angeles Times.
Following the riot in Amazonas, the current Brazilian President, Michel Temer, denied the full implications of these massacres, reducing them to a “terrible accident” and because it was a private prison, the government was in no way responsible. If that is the case, then why has the nation continued to see prison riots in July and November of this year, resulting in the death of eight more inmates? Or, according to the Los Angeles Times, why were there 379 violent deaths reported inside Brazilian prisons in 2016 alone? Are these also terrible accidents that the government cannot be held responsible for?
Brazil has a long history of prison violence, dating as far back as 1992 at the Carandiru penitentiary in Sao Paulo. More than 111 inmates were killed, resulting in Brazil’s bloodiest prison uprising to date, as stated by Al Jazeera. Another horrifying incident was in 2001, when at least 19 people were killed in prison riots across 29 jails in the state of Sao Paulo, amounting to the largest-ever recorded prison uprising in Brazil, involving over 20,000 inmates, according to Reuters. It is evident that the Brazilian prison system is in a state of continuous crisis and has been for years now, but is the government willing to, or do they even have the resources to, implement change?
One of the reasons for the violence that occurs in the prisons of Brazil is overcrowding. The rapid increase in violent and drug-related offenses in recent years has caused the prison population to skyrocket. The Brazilian prison population has grown over 400% in the past 20 years, while the actual population has only increased by 36% in the same period, according to the Wire. With over 676,000 inmates in its prisons, Brazil now has the fourth largest prison population in the world, just trailing behind the U.S., China, and Russia, according to TeleSUR. The rise in the prison population can be partially attributed to the country’s drug law sanctioned in 2006 by former President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, which decriminalizes drug use. However this does not clearly define the difference between drug use and drug trafficking, leaving it up to police officers and judges to convict on a case-by-case basis. This results in more and more people convicted of trafficking, increasing from just 9% of all convictions in 2005, before the sanctioning of the law, to 33% in 2017 for men and close to 70% for women, according to The Wire. In addition, some inmates held in prison today have not even been convicted of a crime and it could be years before a hearing, let alone a trial or court sentence. In fact, more than 220,000 inmates are still awaiting a trial reports The Wire.
With such a high growth rate of new inmates, prisoners are now outnumbering prison staff by the hundreds. From 1984 to 2014, the staff-inmate ratio decreased to one guard for every 200 to 300 prisoners, according to the Independent. As the ratio of guards to prisoners continues to decline, prison staff has had to become more and more reliant on prisoners to self-govern. On the other hand, prisoners have had to become more and more organized in order to survive among the mass influx of prison gangs. In general, the role of the guard has gravitated towards a simple unlock and lockup of the cell blocks in the morning and evening.
Another reason for the ongoing violence within Brazilian prisons is the failure to prevent criminal gangs from spreading throughout the prison system. An inmate controlled environment has allowed Brazil’s most dangerous gangs to grow within the prison walls, a place that has become a goldmine for new member recruitment and where turf battles can unfold. If we look at the history of some of Brazil’s most prominent gangs, you can see that they are actually rooted in the prison system. Comando Vermelho, the most dangerous Brazilian criminal gang, was founded in 1969 when a collection of convicts and left-wing political prisoners were incarcerated together during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985 in the now closed Ilha Grande Prison off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, according to NACLA. Many prisoners incarcerated during that time would consider Comando Vermelho not to be an organization, but rather prisoners merely behaving to survive in the face of adversity. In a similar creation to the Comando Vermelho, the rise of the PCC originated in Sao Paulo Prisons in 1993 when prisoners could not bear the living conditions, the constant violence by police agents and fighting amongst the prisoners any longer. PCC was founded with a clear political agenda, to fight the oppression inside the penitentiary system and avenge the deaths of the Carandiru massacre.
With the Brazilian state increasingly failing to provide and protect common prisoners, gangs are stepping in to do that for them. The most advanced of the prison gangs is the PCC, who have been very successful at maintaining order. They have regulated illicit markets, banned weapons and drugs other than cannabis and enforced rules of coexistence, according to the Independent. In many ways, the PCC have actually made Sao Paulo’s prisons the safest in the country, contrary to common belief. However, the recent breakdown of a two-decade long truce between the PCC and Rio de Janeiro’s Red Command has lead to a surge of violence. The two gangs had a long-lasting working arrangement that ensured the flow of drugs and weapons over Brazil’s borders and into the cities, however earlier this year, the relationship shattered for reasons that remain unclear. With the government cracking down on criminal gangs, leading to thousands of members of the PCC and Red command locked up together, the inadequate space and lack of authority supervision has caused tensions to escalate.
Lastly, the lack of resources for staff and inmates has intensified the violence within Brazilian prisons. Many prisons are underfunded, failing to provide sufficient food and basic equipment for the guards. Family members of inmates have said that inmates often go hungry and are made to sleep with no mattress on a concrete bunk with as many as two to three inmates per bed while the rest take the floor, according to the Los Angeles Times. For the common prisoner at the bottom of the prison hierarchy, they are most concerned with simply making it another day. Without a governing force within the prison, they have no other choice but to look to gangs to protect them from violence and to provide for their needs.
The question moving forward is how will Brazil be able to reduce the cycle of violence and incarceration rates? After the Amazonas and Roraima prison riots, the government announced plans to build five more high security prisons and to create new intelligence units to try to reduce the amount of power gangs have behind bars. However, considering the nation is experiencing its worst recession in two decades and a 20 year cap on public spending, it is difficult to see how the government will be able to fund it. There are some initiatives however that the government could take that does not necessarily require such extensive financial resources. Firstly, police officers and judges could take more time and consideration analyzing each drug conviction case to ensure that they aren’t just giving out long sentences for the sake of “cracking down on drug traffickers.” Secondly, considering that almost one third of the prison population is still awaiting trial, perhaps the authorities could use more discretion in deciding when to hold inmates in prison before their conviction. Only those who are suspected of serious crimes should be held in prison before sentencing. Lastly, there are some low cost solutions that the government could explore that would help divide opposing gangs within the prisons and increase the authoritative power of the guards. For example, according to the Los Angeles Times, in an effort to regain control at Alcacuz, the police used shipping containers to separate rival gangs and brought in 78 guards from surrounding states. In addition, each guard received 400 hours of basic training, including self-defense, observation techniques of the prison yard, and search procedures. These initiatives were not capital intensive and were easy to implement, making the prison a safer place for guards and prisoners to coexist.
The cycle of continuous violence in the Brazilian prison system can be broken, but it will not be easy. The government can no longer afford to overlook prison massacres and disregard them as one-time occurrences. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, a father of an inmate in the Alcacuz State Penitentiary said “we, the victims, are waiting for an answer from the government. We are the ones who are in prison now. Society wants answers. Society wants peace.” The families of inmates deserve justice and they deserve to know that their government is doing everything in their power to keep prisons safe.