Behind bars in Brazil is no place you want to be


South America’s powerhouse faces tough dilemmas in 2014.

Brazil is hastily preparing to host two of the world’s premier mega-events: the World Cup starting in June and the Olympics just 24 months later. While it has come under heavy criticism for the slow pace of preparations, among other things, this is a country that knows how to throw a party.

Meanwhile, the government is gearing up for a repeat of last year’s social protests. In 2013, more than 1 million people flooded the streets to denounce poor-quality services, the skyrocketing cost of living and the deterioration in public safety. Brazil faces profound problems with violence, including more homicides than any other nation and an exploding prison population.

The way a society cares for its prison population is a good index of its values and civility. A cursory inspection of Brazil’s penal justice system reveals a culture bordering on sadism. The country features the world’s fourth-largest prison population, with roughly 550,000 inmates occupying cell space designed for less than 300,000. Almost half of them have yet to be tried and languish for years before seeing a judge. A study by the International Bar Assn.’s Human Rights Institute found that 1 in 5 pretrial prisoners was jailed improperly. Almost a third of all inmate deaths are a result of homicide, six times the rate for the country as a whole.


Brazil’s prisons have been among the world’s most violent for decades. A 1992 prison riot in Sao Paulo’s infamous Carandiru prison left 111 members of rival gangs dead. It took more than two decades for riot police accused of the killings to finally be brought to justice. The First Command of the Capital, or PCC, the nation’s most powerful gang, was formed to avenge the victims of that riot.

Violence in Brazilian prisons amplifies violence on Brazilian streets. In 2006, the PCC launched a wave of attacks against law enforcement and penal personnel as a protest over prison conditions. At least 450 people were killed and riots were organized in more than 70 prisons.

Many of Brazil’s poorly managed prisons are lorded over by gangs that serve as de facto judges, jurors and executioners. A recent government report describes crumbling facilities where torture, sexual violence and beheading are rampant. In the notorious Pedrinhas penitentiary in Maranhao state, for example, some 60 inmates were brutally slain in 2013. More than 60 deaths were reported in the Pernambuco state prison system a few years earlier. Gangs also recruit most of their rank and file from prisons and organize their business from within their walls. Even Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo recently said he’d rather die than be condemned to a Brazilian prison.

Brazil’s penitentiaries are filling up faster than they can be built. Controversial privatization efforts are far from keeping pace with the ever-increasing numbers of detainees. Overcrowding and poor conditions have been repeatedly condemned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. But with a dizzying average of 3,000 new incarcerations each month, the situation is becoming more horrendous by the day. The Brazilian criminal justice and penal system has been repeatedly criticized for its failings, including by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Conectas and Justica Global, not least for violating the government’s legal responsibility to protect human rights.

Not all of Brazil’s incarcerated population suffers equally. The penal system is intrinsically elitist. The minority of detainees with a university diploma or public connections are often issued separate cells and better conditions. The poor are seldom afforded such treatment. One study found that more than 80% of prisoners could not afford to hire a lawyer. Making matters worse, there are no public defenders in more than 70% of all judicial jurisdictions. It’s hardly surprising, then, that those killed in custody tend to be poorer Brazilians, a sobering finding of the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

A rash of federal and state investigations has confirmed that the penal system is disastrously overcrowded, stacked against the poor and rife with police brutality. So why do the deplorable conditions persist? One reason may be that Brazilian society tolerates the status quo. Criminals, so the argument goes, are simply unworthy of public concern. Opinion polls confirm that many Brazilians support tough penalties, prefer punishment over rehabilitation and accept that police abuses may occur. And Brazil’s politicians lack not the material resources but the political and moral resolve to do the right thing.


Turning around Brazil’s backward penal system will require a dramatic shift in public attitudes. If popular pressure is applied on politicians, entrenched resistance can be overcome. But real change requires political leadership. President Dilma Rousseff, who was imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship era, pledged to improve prison conditions. Sadly, she has yet to move the agenda forward.

If she does, reforms should focus on reducing overcrowding and improving conditions. At the federal level, much-needed changes in drug legislation could drastically reduce the nonviolent-offender caseload. States should be encouraged to adopt alternatives to pretrial detention and invest in non-custodial sentencing and rehabilitation programs.

The justice system need not be reinvented. What is required is the implementation of key provisions of the constitution, not least the safeguarding of basic rights that all Brazilians are entitled to.

Robert Muggah is the research director of the Igarape Institute in Rio de Janeiro and directs research at the SecDev Group. Ilona Szabo de Carvalho is the executive director of the Igarape Institute.