The state of prisons in Brazil

The Centre for Crime and justice Studies hosted an interesting event on 25th January about the violence in prisons in Brazil. Leandro Ayres França, of the Universidade Estácio Rio Grande do Sul, presented his new book, As Marcas do Cárcere (Marks of prison) which details the unstable political history, recent riots and murder in prisons.

80% of the ‘marks’ on prisoners’ bodies had come from firearms, including from police punishment during arrest (see pp136-7).

França painted a bleak picture of Brazil outside of prison: the rise in homicide by firearm, despite it being illegal for civilians to own guns, and the fact that in 2015 a person was killed every nine minutes. The so-called ‘war on drugs’ has resulted in what he termed the genocide and rising (see p36) mass incarceration of mostly poor, young black men against a backdrop of police violence and a sexist culture.

28% of male prisoners are in prison in Brazil for drug-related crime, compared with 66% of female prisoners (Franca explained this is due to women being forced to bring drugs to the prison or continue their partner’s business once he had been detained).

There is little sympathy for prisoners, which he illustrated with the startling fact that 57% of the country’s population apparently believe that ‘a good felon is a dead felon’ and which means that, aside from a few church-run projects, there is not much in the way of alternatives to custody.  Brazil has a prison occupancy rate of 200% (see pictures pp60-71) and is third highest in the world when incarcerating its citizens if house arrest is included. França said that some prisoners in police custody even have to be caged on the streets owing to a lack of prison places. This is even worse than the police cell I saw in Sao Paulo airport a few years ago, which contained only a stained, stinking mattress and piles of litter but at least had a roof.

Itai Prison, Avare, Brazil

França showed a short film taken during a prison search: it was a stark reminder of the shortage of space or privacy and the fact that everything must be bought, including simply a thin mattress to sleep on if you don’t want to get ill. Prisoners Abroad regularly sends grants to people in prison in Brazil so that they can buy the food, vitamins, medication or other essentials they need.

John and Derek were two men supported in this way by Prisoners Abroad:

War, overcrowding and poor prison conditions have led to gangs developing in prisons, and in 2016 an end came to the 20-year truce between the two main rivals, the First Command of the Capital and the Red Command [1], resulting in brutal massacres and two prisoners being killed each day. There is neither political will nor investment in prisons, so there is only a National Guard presence outside the prison: a force of soldiers and police which will enter after a massacre but has no power to prevent or control it.

Prisoners Abroad currently supports fewer than five people in Brazil, but a decade ago it was 17; we would hope that numbers do not increase again but if they do, we will be here.

Laura, Prisoners Abroad


[1] For more information see also Sacha Darke and Chris Garces, What’s causing Brazil’s prison massacres?




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